The hardest news: “I’ve got cancer”

June 1, 2013

I remember how strange I felt making the introduction for the first time, “This is Mark, my husband.” Stranger still, a bit later, were the words, “This is my son, Alex.”

Now, 14 years since Alex was born, I am now uttering a phrase that is scary and life-changing: I have cancer.

It’s been difficult to get accustomed to saying it; it can’t be true. Even more frightening is my diagnosis: I have Stage 4 lung cancer, meaning the cancer has spread.

As a Reuters journalist I have been writing about medical technology and healthcare for more than a decade. I’ve covered the major medical meetings, including the big one on cancer. I’ve written stories about new cancer drugs and treatments, about how many more survive the disease (true for breast, colon and some other forms, though not so much for lung cancer), and how a diagnosis can lead to bankruptcy, even for those with health insurance.

I wrote those stories objectively and never imagined any would ever apply to me.

The morning of my 50th birthday last year, I looked up at the August sky — a soft blue with puffy clouds — and thought how lucky I was to have good health. I stopped smoking 15 years ago and became a vegetarian decades before that. Up until my diagnosis in March of this year — discovered after I suffered terrible pain in my rib, from the cancer spreading to the bone there, I would learn — I was a regular runner, cyclist, tennis player, skier, and struggling yogi. I loved them all and hope to resume some day.

If there has been an upside to this dreaded disease it is that people are so kind when they find out I have cancer, even nicer than when I was pregnant with my two children. Loved ones seem to love me more, or tell me so more often. Everyone wants to do things for me and offer help. The love has come from some unexpected people and warms my heart in indescribable ways. At times, the outpouring feels as if it could actually cure me.

With this blog, I have decided to take what I know and try to give back, in a way. I will share my experiences, and when I use my reporting skills to satisfy my curiosity about new treatments, the ups and downs of the disease, feelings of mortality and so forth—I will use the blog to tell the stories. The blog will report on the latest cancer research from the perspective of a patient.

After all, I have been writing health stories for years. There seems no reason to stop now that my health is so compromised.

Stage 4 lung cancer is incurable. I know the odds of long-term survival are not in my favor. I am undergoing treatment at one of the top cancer centers in America, M.D. Anderson in Houston. The hope is that it will extend my life and improve the quality of what’s left.

The days ahead will be filled with uncertainty, but I know I there are at least a few truths that will not change. I will always need an oncologist. I can count on my family and friends. And I will never stop wondering how many August skies I will get to see.


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I received my colo-rectal cancer diagnosis in late March and I agree that the outpouring of support frm family, friends, coworkers & strangers has been amazing. I’ve completed 6 weeks of chemo/rad and am in 4th week recuperation with surgery and a probable clostomy loomin.

Good luck onyour journey. Take refuge and succor where ever you can find it!

John Vaccaro

Posted by JohnVaccaro | Report as abusive

You are getting the very best care available at M.D. Anderson. You clearly did your reserch. My husband was treated at the Proton Therapy Center there, & I happily recommend it. My best wishes to you & your family–

Posted by MizGrandma | Report as abusive

Have you watched the documentary “Dying to Have Known”?
See have-known/

Posted by RUCE88 | Report as abusive

You are very brave. Good luck and God bless.

Posted by marygoround9 | Report as abusive

My husband is currently going through chemotherapy in Dallas for cancer that hsa spread to his lungs (stage 4 non small cell lung cancer). His last scan three weeks ago showed that his tumors were not responding to his current chemo. We are in the process of seeing what we can try next. I was hoping you could tell me what chemotherapy you ar currently undergoing and if that has been working for you. I really appreciate your insight and advice. This has been very hard on my husband and our family. We have an 8 year old daughter that really needs him as well as I do.

Posted by needingamiracle | Report as abusive

I’ve heard those exact words November 2012. After two surgeries and radiation, I am slowly recovering. Although we have different cancers, different stages, your blog could have been about me. Friends and family came out of the wood work to take care of me, to send me cards and well wishes, they were all there for me. So many hugs, so much love, and so needed. You will cry often, sometimes over nothing in particular. It’s an emotional roller coaster. This is an evil disease, which sneaks up on you, and throws your whole life off balance. I ran the Marine Corp Marathon a month before my diagnosis, never been healthier… I will be following your blog, and always remember to remain positive! Cancer loves stress, I believe as to how it got me.

Posted by Imasurvivor | Report as abusive

Debra, I will pray for you. I pray the Lord heal you from head to toe. He is the master physician. Don’t just focus on the doctors and what they say; focus on Him.

Posted by jthoen | Report as abusive

God bless you and your family. What a remarkable woman you are to be speaking of all the good in your life in spite of your diagnosis. You’re a hero.

Posted by Misanthropy | Report as abusive

Thank you for sharing this with the world. It may mean someone goes to get screening/treatment sooner.
The widespread screening of people with extended smoking history is controversial. How do you see that through your new lens?
Also, have heard from others that advocacy groups feel lung cancer has a special stigma. People may not say it – but they think “you contributed to your own disease” in a way that does not apply to other cancers. Interested in your take on that.

Posted by jamesian | Report as abusive

I cleared my lung cancer using low-dose naltrexone. My Dr. would not prescribe it, I had to hunt down one that would but it worked.

Posted by Vigilant2012 | Report as abusive

Sorry to hear you have cancer, i know first hand from perspective of son how hard it is to deal with it. Lost my mother 7 months ago due cancer. We had long and hard fight with it until it finally got the best of her after almost 4 years.
One thing i noticed it brings out the best or worst in your family, friends, relatives. ( sorry if it doesnt make sense, still in progress of learning english)

Stay strong and don’t let negative thoughts take over you even though it might seem like its over, theres miracles that happen.

Posted by Kosttas | Report as abusive

Dear Debra: #1. There is always hope. #2. Refer to #1. I am a cancer survivor. I’ve been reading, reading, reading….it is very, very important. Books by: Kris Carr, Keith Block, Colin Campbell, Louise Hay to name a few. Nutrition is huge. So are all the things you try (yoga, acupuncture, etc). Don’t settle for less for you. Follow your intuition. Ask about supplements like Turkey Tail and Curcumin. M.D. Anderson is a good place as well. You may very well survive – but, you will be a different person! NanetteN

Posted by NanetteN | Report as abusive


Posted by ELR | Report as abusive

I went through treatment at MDACC, as did my son. There’s no better place for it and I’ve seen some people with pretty grim diagnoses still manage to pull through. One woman who was told she’d be dead by now is still alive and hanging in there.

So don’t feel defeated. Check out the clinical trials and the targeted therapies. I’m hoping the best for you, and sending you hugs.

Posted by readingyou | Report as abusive

I went through treatment at MDACC, as did my son. There’s no better place for it and I’ve seen some people with pretty grim diagnoses still manage to pull through. One woman who was told she’d be dead by now is still alive and hanging in there.

So don’t feel defeated. Check out the clinical trials and the targeted therapies. I’m hoping the best for you, and sending you hugs.

Posted by readingyou | Report as abusive

Debra, thanks for your honesty.

Posted by snoop_echidna | Report as abusive

So sorry to read that your cancer is incurable, so glad to read though that you have family and friends who are surrounding you with love. Thank you for sharing your story.

Posted by jdr160483 | Report as abusive

Life is short and death is certain. This truth gives me renewed vigour whenever I’m reminded of it, be it because I see the will to live in a person who appreciates living and won’t get to see all the sunrises they wish they could, the sign of the new day. Or when I take a moment to think about the inevitably of losing all that I’ve acquired with my short existence. I hope you get to see many more blue skies, I hope the wonders of modern medicine help you to do so. I look forward to reading about your experiences, and hope they give those who read them a perspective they may be lacking, one that implies action in realizing their dreams before they become regrets, and appreciating what they have now.

Posted by Questions123 | Report as abusive

I am feeling every feeling you are writing about Debra. We all know only too well your feelings. I pray you experience hours or days in your life that you don’t even think about cancer. My thoughts are with you. We were hit very hard. Cancer took our home, our life savings, and even our dignity at times.

Posted by Abygail | Report as abusive

Thank you for making the choice to serve the cancer community during your own battle with this dreaded disease. My father died from lung cancer five years ago. We were shocked to learn of his diagnosis – sure his medical care had been lacking (he’s previously gotten flying colors on a physical only months before the discovery). The more we learned about the disease, however, the more we realized it was the nature of lung cancer and not medical oversight. The facts need to be brought to light – but more importantly the human story needs to be told. There is such a dirth of compassion, outrage and advocacy for lung cancer as a whole. Perhaps your words and experience can help change that.

Posted by Karen825 | Report as abusive


Our hearts and prayers go out to you.

Let me correct something you said in your post which I think you need to know.

My wife was diagnosed back in 2003 with Stage IV NCSLC. She too was treated at MD Anderson …still is after 10 years. We go back every 6 months for follow up – we drive from San Jose to Houston – part of our “celebrate life” routine.

When he Medical Radiologist first met her, he told he he thought he could cure her. And for 10 years she has been health well and her cancer under control…if not defeated. (One never knows).

People do survive beyond the gloomy 6 months often talked about in the literature. I know not just from my wife …but from the other long terms survivors we counsel and keep in touch with.

If you or your family would like to talk to another Stage IV lung cancer survivor…get in touch. stwilkins at gmail

God bless.

Posted by SteveWI | Report as abusive

Hi Debra.
I read your brave and honest account with great admiration. Given your background, you are only too well aware of all the ins and outs of what is involved. I wish you every success in your battle. I look forward to reading good news on your blog. With best wishes from Galway, Ireland. Des Bluett

Posted by desbluett | Report as abusive

One more vote for watching this documentary!

Have you watched the documentary “Dying to Have Known”?
See have-known/

Posted by BreastAwareness | Report as abusive

Thank you so much for sharing your journey. You are providing a lot of much needed information. My thoughts are with you and I look forward to reading your blog for years to come.

Posted by Britwife | Report as abusive