A Tale of Two Cancers

Pat and Mike Harrell

Pat and Mike Harrell

By: Pat Harrell, lung cancer advocate and breast cancer survivor

When my husband, Mike, retired from the Navy in 2005 after 22 years of service we figured we would settle into civilian life the way countless military families have done over the years.  Little did we know that cancer would impact our lives so soon after making this transition.

After a flu-like illness prompted several doctor visits, Mike was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer at the age of 46. A CT scan revealed the cancer had spread from his lungs to his brain. To add to an already difficult situation, a year later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

A happy couple and two cancer diagnoses. That’s where the similarities end.

Fortunately, my breast cancer was caught early and I had a mastectomy. The cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes and I did not have to undergo any chemotherapy treatments. They tell me that my cancer has a low risk of recurrence. The resources given to breast cancer survivors are unparalleled. I always felt like I knew where I could find support when I was dealing with my illness.

Mike’s journey was very different. As a non-smoker, he had to deal with the stigma that often comes with having lung cancer. During one of our first meetings with his oncologist, Mike was asked, “When did you quit smoking?” I was stunned. Even a cancer doctor assumed that his diagnosis was the result of years of smoking. My mother, a long-time smoker, also passed away from lung cancer in 2004 so I was familiar with the disease, but the tone of people who spoke to my husband led me to think that they faulted him for his diagnosis even though lung cancer can happen to anyone regardless of their smoking habits. 20 percent of people diagnosed are individuals who have never smoked.

Pat on Capitol Hill with LCA President & CEO for the 6th Annual Summit

Pat on Capitol Hill with LCA President & CEO for the 6th Annual Summit this September

Thankfully, early into his diagnosis when answers and support were in short supply, Mike heard about the Phone Buddy program with Lung Cancer Alliance. He was paired up with someone who had survived his initial diagnoses for over 5 years giving Mike hope that he, too, could fight this disease. He even wondered aloud if he could “be one of the 2% who survive.” After a period of time, Mike also became a Phone Buddy and began helping others while he was enduring his own treatments which included a full brain radiation treatment among many other physically demanding therapies.

Last March, Mike lost his battle with lung cancer after 5 years. I truly believe he gained a sense of purpose by being helped in those early days through the Phone Buddy program and later volunteering to call others dealing with lung cancer. Through my experience, I have recognized how critical hope is in the cancer journey. No matter what cancer a person has, everyone deserves hope and support.  I’m grateful for the last few years we had together and even more thankful that he ended up finding the support to deal with his own diagnosis.

I realize now that support is the great equalizer in any cancer fight. No matter the outcome, people benefit from having someone on their side. Thankfully, Mike and I both gained that even though we had different paths after our initial diagnoses. Inspired by his efforts, I have continued his commitment to the lung cancer community through advocacy work to make people, whether at home or in our nation’s capital, more aware of the needs of lung cancer patients.  More must be done, but we are definitely on the right track.