Lung cancer survivor Karen Arscott strives to “live every day as though it’s the best day.” It’s a commitment the 52-year-old wife, mother, and grandmother made when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006—and one she consciously made again when she faced a recurrence in 2007. “When I was first diagnosed, and again when I had my recurrence, I told my husband that although this disease may take my future, I would not allow it to take away my present as well,” Karen says. “I know it sounds trite, but we really aren’t promised tomorrow.”
Throughout treatment—which has included two major surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation—and recovery, Karen has made a point to not allow her diagnosis to dictate her life more than necessary. “I told my husband when I was diagnosed that I didn’t want cancer to become the focus of our lives,” Karen says. “We would discuss it when necessary, but otherwise we would go on enjoying life, not talking about death.”
For Karen, a never-smoker who has always been health conscious, continuing her fitness routine was one way to stay focused on the present and maintain optimal wellness during treatment. She even attended spinning classes during the time she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, calling on her desire to beat the disease to keep her wheels spinning: “I would sit in spinning class and pretend I was racing against my cancer,” Karen says. “That is real motivation, let me tell you!”
Now, having completed treatment, Karen continues her commitment to exercise and to enjoying the blessings of each day. She has become an avid walker, competing in marathons with her husband and sister. “I have only 60 percent lung function due to the surgeries and the radiation, but my husband, my sister, and I can now walk a marathon in six hours 28 minutes—we pass runners! It was a challenge getting to this point, but I am happy that I did it, and I am thrilled that I have my husband and my sister to walk with.”
Karen encourages other lung cancer survivors to do all they can to maintain wellness and to pay close attention to their bodies. “Keep your body as healthy as possible to face all that needs to be done,” she says. “Exercise, drink lots of water, and listen to your body—if something doesn’t feel right, look into it and don’t be shy. The body is amazing, and you can do it!”
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Montessa Lee was 28 years old when she was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in December 2006 after two misdiagnoses. At the time, the special education teacher from Silver Spring, Maryland, was healthy and active, having never encountered a health challenge more serious than seasonal allergies.
Now she found herself facing cancer treatment at a time when most of her peers were focused on careers, relationships, and family. For Montessa, whose family lived in North Carolina, the experience illuminated what was of real value in her life and showed her what she could truly count on.
Turning to her faith and to loved ones, she found strength to cope. “I turned to the only thing that could bring me through that storm: my relationship with God,” Montessa says. “I joined a cancer support ministry at my church, which I am still a part of today.” In addition, she found support in family, who traveled back and forth from North Carolina to offer support, and in friends who truly came through for her.
Learning whom she could really count on and what she was capable of, Montessa says, has been transformative. “I have learned how to truly value life and friendships. I found out what makes a true friend—one who will be with you through thick and thin—and I have learned that I was stronger than I ever thought I was.”
In addition to calling on that strength to aid in her own recovery, Montessa now channels her resources to make a difference for others affected by lung cancer. “When I look at the survival rates of this disease, I believe that I am still here for a reason. I am assured that my life has a purpose on this earth: I am alive today to give this disease a voice and tell my story.” To that end Montessa works with the National Lung Cancer Partnership to raise funds and awareness of the disease.
Having recently celebrated five years of survivorship, Montessa says that she hopes newly diagnosed patients will learn to reach out for support when they need it and learn the value of becoming their own best advocate. “Don’t have too much pride to ask for help,” she says. “Seek support from local cancer centers, websites, and support or church groups. Seek out advice about who are the best doctors that specialize in your particular cancer. Last but not least, be your own patient advocate: know the side effects of medications, know your treatment cycles, know the names of your chemotherapy drugs, know the latest findings for your cancer, inquire about clinical trials, and always ask questions.”