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Stage IV Metastatic NSCLC Shares Key Learnings on Her Journey

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Lung cancer patient Carol shares her journey with stage IV metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Watch as she discusses the symptoms she experienced, how she pushed when her symptoms were dismissed, and key learnings that empowered her on her journey.

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My name is Carol, and I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic  non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) at the age of 53. My initial symptoms were dismissed, but I advocated for myself to receive an accurate diagnosis.

My lung cancer journey began in an emergency room right after New Year’s Day 2022 with severe headache symptoms of head pressure, pain, and vomiting. I knew it was not a normal headache. The ER team started to treat me for a migraine and wanted to send me home. I pushed back and explained that I’d been experiencing symptoms of fatigue, frequent headaches, dizziness, and a weird buzzing sound in my ear over the last few months. I knew that I didn’t feel right and insisted on getting a brain scan.

After waiting hours to get in for the brain scan, they were shocked to find 10 brain metastases. Then a PET scan uncovered the root cause – a tumor in my lung and multiple metastases throughout my body, including leptomeningeal disease. Back when I started having symptoms, I tried to book an appointment with a neurologist, but there wasn’t an opening until February. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had left the ER on January 3 to wait until February. We know our bodies best and need to make sure we push for answers when we know there’s something more to the story. This pushing can be uncomfortable, because no one wants to be labeled “a difficult patient”, but it’s our health – and sometimes our life – at stake.

Following my diagnosis, I received one round of chemo until my genetic testing came back with the EGFR exon 19 deletion result. Then I was switched to a more targeted medication and still receive monthly infusions for bone mets.

Physically my treatment allows me to live an almost normal life enjoying my previous activities of golfing, hiking, and  gardening. And I’ve been surprised by my mental strength and positivity in the face of this horrible disease. Sure… I have times when helpless or sad or angry feelings come up, and I need to embrace and FEEL them, but overall I feel thankful and hopeful.

Some things I’ve learned during my lung cancer journey include:          

  • If something doesn’t feel right with your health, speak up and don’t stop pushing until you get answers.
  • Pay attention to your body when you experience multiple symptoms.
  • Focusing on helping others is another way to take your mind off of your own worries.
  • My friends and family are a big source of emotional support, and we are all going through this cancer journey together. So, I find that it helps them to feel useful when I give them small tasks to do, so they feel like an active part of this journey.

These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.

Living With an MPN and Being Your Own Best Advocate

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Living With an MPN and Being Your Own Best Advocate from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 MPN patient Rita experienced an extended path to her diagnosis. Watch as she shares her patient journey of varied symptoms, how self-advocacy and self-education assisted in her care, and her tips on how to empower yourself as a patient. In Rita’s words, “Don’t feel bad about advocating for yourself. Your doctor has many patients, but you have only one you.”

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My Polycythemia Vera Journey to Empowerment

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My name is Rita, and I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera in March 2019 after nearly three years of wide-ranging symptoms. Like many patients, my path to diagnosis was long and required me to self-advocate.

I was generally healthy until my symptoms of polycythemia vera began. I first experienced one episode of neck, jaw and chest discomfort, and the hospital blood test showed somewhat elevated platelets, and elevated red cell distribution width (RDW); but the doctors weren’t concerned. Next, I started getting optical migraines that were also dismissed. These were followed by incidents of feeling weak and sweaty; some days with headaches, dizziness, and fatigue; and also looking like I had a sunburn on my face with bloodshot eyes. I dismissed these symptoms. Then I started feeling short of breath at times, especially lying down, and experienced intermittent stabbing underneath my left lower chest area.

After having blood tests done, I had to call to find out my results that showed high hemoglobin, high red blood cells, and high hematocrit levels. After I Googled my test results, the first thing that came up was polycythemia vera. Experiencing additional vision issues, abnormal blood test results, chest pressure, and “foggy headedness” that frightened me, my doctor finally referred me to a hematologist who confirmed my suspicions with a PV diagnosis.

Some things I have learned during my MPN journey include:

  • We need to feel comfortable advocating for ourselves, and we need to make sure our doctors are open to being our partner in healthcare rather than our ‘boss’ in health care.
  • We also need to educate doctors that what looks like “dehydration” on a CBC could actually be a rare blood cancer. 
  • Get copies of your own blood test results, X-rays, other medical reports, etc., and, within reason, try to learn what they mean.
  • Diagnosed patients should be allowed to self-refer to an MPN specialist rather than be dependent on their physicians to do it. 
  • We need to self-advocate as “women of a certain age” to make sure we’re not medically or symptomatically reduced to “it’s menopause.”
  • Be careful how you express yourself to your doctor, because a careless comment may throw off your path to a correct diagnosis.
  • Don’t feel bad about advocating for yourself. Your doctor has many patients, but you have only one you. 

These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.

What To Expect When Starting MPN Inhibitor Therapy

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What To Expect When Starting MPN Inhibitor Therapy from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Changing a treatment approach for your essential thrombocythemia (ET), polycythemia vera (PV), or myelofibrosis (MF) can be intimidating. Dr. John Mascarenhas, a myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) specialist, shares tips and advice for beginning a new therapy.

Dr. John Mascarenhas is Associate Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) and the Director of the Adult Leukemia Program and Leader of Clinical Investigation within the Myeloproliferative Disorders Program at Mount Sinai. Learn more about Dr. Mascarenhas, here.

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Katherine Banwell:

And we have another question from Craig that we received earlier. “I’m currently receiving regular phlebotomies for PV, but my doctor is considering switching me to inhibitor therapy. What can I expect, and are there side effects that I should be concerned about?”

Dr. Mascarenhas:       

So, for some patients, therapeutic phlebotomy is all that they need, and they do very well with it, and they don’t need to take a therapeutic like a JAK inhibitor or hydroxyurea, which is a non-specific treatment.

But some patients do. So, some patients where if their risk score is higher and their risk for thrombosis, that may be an appropriate indication. And some patients have a lot of symptoms with their PV. So, not all PV patients present and behave the same way. Some patients have a very low symptom burden. Some patients have a very significant symptom burden. Itching, for example can be a very annoying and very troublesome symptom for patients with PV.

And, if you don’t have PV or you don’t know someone with PV, you may not understand or realize the negative impact of having intractable itching, often associated with taking a shower or warm water.

And, that can really detract from quality-of-life and cause a lot of anxiety. So, that’s an example of where sometimes a JAK inhibitor like ruxolitinib can be really lifesaving in terms of restoring quality-of-life and functionality to a patient.

Usually, drugs like ruxolitinib are very well-tolerated too, which we’re fortunate about. There’s not a lot of toxicity associated with them. So, for example, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair falling out with chemotherapeutics, you really don’t see with ruxolitinib or Jakafi. Easy bruising, headaches and some dizziness up front sometimes may be seen. They’re usually low-grade and they’re usually fleeting. And usually, the benefit, the feel-good aspect of it outweighs toxicity that can be seen with the drugs. They are immunomodulatory drugs. So, ruxolitinib or Jakafi may increase, to some small extent, but likely, real extent, infectious complications like shingles, urinary tract infections, upper respiratory infections. So, sometimes there is this increased risk. It’s often outweighed by the benefit of the drug.

But there are risks that are associated, and of course the results are not guaranteed. So, I always warn patients, be careful when you look at the package inserts or talk to the physicians. Risks are risks. They’re not guaranteed. So, most patients don’t have these toxicities, but one is at risk for toxicity whenever they take any medication.