How I Told my Only Daughter I had Lung Cancer.

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"I quickly learned that with faith, family, and friends–plus Fox Chase–I had a good chance at winning against cancer."

— Joan Lautenbacher

Life was good. I was 55 and enjoying a challenging but rewarding career in educational administration for the State of New Jersey. I was a single parent, and my only child had graduated from LaSalle University and begun a new career in Philadelphia.

I enjoyed the active life I shared with a very special man, who would eventually become my husband.

All of that was turned upside down after a visit to my primary care doctor because I was having difficulty swallowing. He prescribed Nexium, but none of the symptoms on the label matched my symptoms, so I advocated for myself and he sent me for a chest X-ray.

The X-ray showed two tumors in the lower region of my right lung, and a PET scan found that the swallowing difficulty was due to lymph nodes that also showed cancerous activity. It was lung cancer, Stage 3B.

My World Was Crumbling

My world became one of shock, fear, and anger. I have always been a strong woman, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell my daughter. I couldn’t tell her I had lung cancer until I had a plan in place that would bring hope for recovery and a positive outlook for the future.

I knew that living in the Philadelphia region, I had access to some of the best cancer research facilities and providers in the country. A good friend directed me to Fox Chase Cancer Center, and I’ve never looked back.

Once I made up my mind to be treated at Fox Chase, it was time to have the conversation that I wasn’t sure how to have. I tried to tell my only child about my cancer. It was the toughest conversation we’ve ever had. Fortunately, Carolyn has a very strong circle of friends, who held her close and helped her fight my fight. I quickly learned that with faith, family, and friends–plus Fox Chase–I had a good chance at winning against cancer.

I Never Doubted Fox Chase's Abilities

I have never questioned my decisions or challenged Fox Chase's recommendations. I never let the travel distance, the I-95 construction delays, or times spent in the waiting room get to me. After being a patient, I understand patience is key because the doctors at Fox Chase dedicate themselves to each individual patient to give them what they need. Like doctors everywhere, they may run behind schedule at times, but they won’t leave until you feel comfortable.

My Fox Chase doctors formed a team with a single goal of providing me, the patient, with the best possible outcomes. I became mentally stronger, educated, and proactive. 

I began alternating weeks of chemotherapy and radiation in August 2009. That August and September, I was at Fox Chase nearly every day. The treatment regimen was intense, but because I was young and otherwise healthy, my doctors felt I could handle it.

I was given a month-long break to let my body heal before having surgery at the end of October. Due to the location of my tumor, I wasn’t a candidate for robotic surgery. Initially I was supposed to be in the hospital for four to six days, but due to some healing complications, I stayed for 28 days.

Every morning I had a chest X-ray and saw my surgical team. I wasn’t in pain, but my doctors didn’t want me to leave until I was fully healed. My medical team made sure to keep me in place until I was fully ready to go home.

Being Cared for By Fox Chase

It was a long month. I could recite the Temple University Hospital – Jeanes Campus daily menu by heart. 

While I waited for nature to take its course, I walked around the hospital and got to know the nursing staff. I was there so long I knew the names of all their children. When they had a break, they would often join me in my room in the evening as we watched the Phillies in the World Series. 

The incredible care the nursing staff provided had a profound effect on my daughter. She had been thinking about a career change, and after seeing the impact the nurses at Fox Chase had on their patients, she went back to school to become a nurse.

After a long month, I finally got the news that I had been hoping for: I had a complete response to treatment. I was discharged the day before Thanksgiving.

Though I was out of the hospital, I still had a long way to a full recovery. Months of physical therapy helped me immensely. My Fox Chase nurse navigator and social worker continued regular contact with me and made sure I had systems in place to make recovery complete.

I returned to Fox Chase monthly for tests and checkups, and I returned to work in February. My boyfriend, Mike, and I had decided to get married, and on snowy days I planned my wedding–and my future.

Mike and I were married in the company of our children and their significant others, plus about a thousand bystanders on a beach in Cape May on a beautiful Memorial Day weekend. 

In June 2010, I took retirement from the State of New Jersey.

Giving Back to the Place That Gave Me So Much

My retirement plan focused on regaining my full strength and giving back to Fox Chase. I volunteered at the Infusion Room check-in desk Monday and Friday mornings for 18 months. My experience as a patient and as a lifelong educator made it natural for me to help those beginning the journey I had recently experienced. 

Even now, I talk with new lung cancer patients and pass along any bits of information that will be helpful to them. During my chemotherapy treatments, I met another patient who needed the same surgery. We talked about our fears for recovery, surgical incisions, broken ribs, chest tubes, and pain medications.

She went through the surgery before I did and called me to tell me little details that only a fellow patient would know, like not having the arm strength to zip up a pair of jeans or be able to pull a T-shirt on over my head. No one had ever mentioned those things to me. I was so grateful to have had that guidance, and I still try to pass it along to new patients I talk with.

A year after I retired, my husband took retirement as well. We purchased an RV and became volunteers, or “work campers,” for the state and national park systems. For five years we have traveled throughout the eastern United States enjoying two- to three-month blocks of time working in various state and national locations. We had the unique opportunity to work as volunteer park rangers in Everglades National Park for three winter seasons. I can tell you anything you need to know about alligators and Burmese pythons.

As a survivor, I have learned to enjoy and appreciate each day. I have had the ultimate pleasure in being the mother of the bride, as my daughter married her sweetheart. This fall, we will travel to Hawaii for my stepdaughter’s wedding. I am so grateful to be able to be there for these milestones. There were times I wasn’t sure I would be.

Always Choose Fox Chase

Despite my full life and time spent traveling, I never miss a follow-up appointment at Fox Chase. In the beginning, the appointments were every three months, but now I only go once a year.

Lung cancer has a reputation as being a dirty cancer. Many people assume that you smoked and caused your own cancer. That’s just not true for so many people, including me. Lung cancer research is always struggling for funding. I know funding depends on statistics, and physicians and researchers rely on patients returning and getting checkups to compile statistics.

Though some members of my original lung team have left Fox Chase since I became a patient, I feel as confident as ever in the care they provide me. Once I found my way to where I had the best opportunities, I wanted to stay there and follow it through. For me, that place was Fox Chase.  

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