More people in the United States die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Jean Heath of Wallburg, North Carolina, refused to become a statistic when she was diagnosed with lung cancer almost 14 years ago.
At the time, Heath had bronchitis and a cough that would not stop. She went to her doctor for her yearly physical and mentioned she was having some trouble getting over her bronchitis. Her doctor suggested a chest X-ray and the scans revealed a tumor that Heath described as the “size of a baseball” in the top part of her chest.
In January 2002, Heath was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. About 85 percent to 90 percent of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Runs in the family
Heath had family history of the disease. Her son had testicular cancer four years before her diagnosis, and she knew he had a rough time with his treatments. When her son found out she had cancer, he was really upset, Heath said.
At 6 feet 2 inches tall and 220 pounds, he feared his mom wouldn’t have the stamina to endure arduous cancer treatment. “Mother, you’ll never make it,” he said.
But Heath didn’t let that affect her. “I’m only 5 feet tall and 105 pounds,” she said. “I showed him up. Through all the treatments, I never felt sick or nauseated.”
Her resilience also became a major motivator because Heath’s sister had already passed away from lung cancer. “I was devastated when I found out my diagnosis, but I was so determined,” she said. “My sister was very brave, but I think she felt lung cancer was her fate. I was determined it was not my fate. I never gave into it and I did not give up.”
A treatment-resistant tumor
Through her cancer journey, Heath had 37 radiation and 13 chemotherapy treatments.
“Nothing seemed to be helping,” she said. “Thirty-seven radiation treatments and the tumor didn’t shrink at all.”
After an adverse reaction to chemotherapy, her physician stopped all treatments. The plan was to do a scan and re-evaluate her treatment plan. “When they took the scan, the tumor had just gone away,” Heath said.
After being diagnosed in January, Heath was free of cancer by the following August – just seven months after her diagnosis.
“I was stubborn and determined, and I think that’s what got me through,” Heath said.
Now, Heath volunteers every week at Forsyth Medical Center’s Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center. In fact, she lends her time reassuring cancer patients in the same room where she received treatment 14 years ago.
“A lot of people think it would be sad,” she said. “It’s encouraging to me. I know how they feel, and I can show them they can overcome this.”
Once a month, she also calls lung cancer patients to see how they’re doing as part of the hospital’s cancer support services.
‘Don’t ever give up’
Today, Heath is committed to a healthy lifestyle, and she faithfully walks 10,000 steps every day. She meets that daily count, even if it means walking around her garage and house before bed to meet her goal.
“I don’t go to bed until I get 10,000 steps,” Heath said. "You have to stay active."
Persistency and determination got her through her cancer diagnosis, she said. Her advice to others: “No matter how bad it gets, don’t ever give up.”
Learn about lung cancer care and support services offered by Novant Health here.