A Mom Blamed Her Back Pain on Pregnancy, but After Giving Birth She Was Diagnosed With Incurable Lung Cancer
When Jessica Sherrie started experiencing severe back pain during the last month of her pregnancy, she chalked it up to the surgery she'd had in 2018 for scoliosis, as well as the physical stress of carrying a nearly full-term baby. But the pain didn't go away after the birth of her daughter, Regina.
After a series of tests, doctors broke the news that the pain had a shocking, entirely different cause: stage 4 lung cancer that had spread all over her body.
"Once I had my daughter and the medication wore off, I still had pain," 35-year-old Sherrie, who lives in Glendora, California, told TODAY, recalling when she first realized something serious might be going on.
The tests revealed that she had non-small cell lung cancer, which is a less aggressive type of lung cancer. However, she also had tumors in her brain, hips, and spine. That meant she had stage 4 cancer, which is incurable.
Sherrie said she was "pretty freaked out" by the diagnosis. She'd never smoked, which made her lung cancer diagnosis even more surprising. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), women who smoke are 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer than those who have never smoked. Another risk factor, though, is exposure to secondhand smoke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 7,300 people who have never smoked die of lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke each year.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), symptoms of lung cancer include a persistent cough, wheezing, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, and infections like bronchitis and pneumonia that don't go away or keep returning. If lung cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it may cause bone pain (such as in the back, as Sherrie experienced), swelling of lymph nodes, and nervous system changes like headache, dizziness, weakness, or numbness of an arm or leg.
Non-small cell lung cancer is one of the main types of lung cancer, affecting about 80% to 85% of people with lung cancer. People with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer have a five-year survival rate is about 1%, says the ACS. If someone is in good health otherwise, the cancer may be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy to help relieve symptoms and prolong lifespan.
Though terminal cancer is a scary diagnosis, new treatments can help make certain late-stage cancers more manageable, Sherrie's doctor told TODAY. "We tend to treat it like a chronic disease. So basically like diabetic people need insulin in their lives, so a chronic form of cancer needs chronic treatment," Erminia Massarelli, MD, co-director of the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center's lung cancer and thoracic oncology program, said. "We tend to tailor the treatment so they don't have as many side effects."
Sherrie's experience emphasizes the importance of taking health concerns seriously, particularly in young patients—who aren't typically associated with lung cancer.
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"I hope that people are not scared to go to the doctor and find out if they have cancer, because that could save their lives," said Sherrie. "I hope I can inspire people to take action right away when they experience symptoms."
After a tumultuous year, she's had some good news—the tumors in her brain have shrunk so much, they're now microscopic, and all but one of the tumors in her lungs have disappeared. New tumors have appeared in her liver and hip, though, and Sherrie is on a new drug regimen to treat them. In the meantime, one-year-old Regina is keeping her spirits up.
"I wasn't able to like carry her and walk around the house. I'd have to be sitting down… that was a hard time for me," Sherrie said of her postpartum months, after she was diagnosed. "I just want to hold my daughter. But it's OK now, I can hold her all the time."
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