Throughout July the Lowell Ledger and the Buyer's Guide & News will once again highlight the stories of area cancer survivors and those who are dealing with grief. Each writer will convey, in their own words, their experiences as they walk through the many phases of their personal journey.
All photos courtesy of Heather Eveland Photography.
My name is Betsy (Dommer) Davidson and I am 47 years old. I wanted to share my story with you about my cancer journey to help you or someone you know battling cancer. Cancer has been a life-changing experience for me, and I want to help others who are battling cancer move forward.
I grew up in Lowell, graduated from Lowell High School in 1990, and Central Michigan University in 1994. In July, my husband, Matt, and I will be celebrating 25 years of marriage. Growing up, I was very active in school, running cross country and track, and continued running over the years. In 2017, I ran the 5k Fifth Third River Bank Run and a few other races. I was working out and feeling pretty good. I have always been very active in Lowell, volunteering with many organizations, and I’ve had a business here for the past 20 years. I was awarded the Lowell Chamber’s Person of the Year Award in February 2018. My business and volunteer projects were going very well. What was to happen next was a shock to my family, friends and me.
In March of 2018, I started having back problems. I thought for sure it was from a new workout machine I’d just started using. March turned into April with continuing back problems, which were progressively getting worse. I started seeing a chiropractor and then a physical therapist, thinking it was a muscle or a disc issue in my back.
In May, we went to my local doctor and the first step was to get an MRI on my back. The results were in, the doctor said there was a lesion on my L3 vertebrae, and we would need to do a biopsy. This was the first time we heard that it could be cancer, along with a couple of other potential possibilities. This wasn’t the first time, however, I had been met with health challenges. I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2000 and thought this might be related. MS is a demyelinating disease in which the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged which causes lesions.
I was scheduled for a biopsy of the lesion in June. I met with the nurses on that day, and they couldn’t believe I was walking after looking at the MRI. I am pretty stubborn! We found out the following week that it was cancer. I was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma, which was coming from my lungs but needed more testing.
July, August and September were really just a blur. We started meeting with my oncologist, Dr. Zakem. I often refer to him as my Quarterback, because he was orchestrating all the doctors we had lined up from the neurosurgeon to the radiologist, and all the doctors in between who were reviewing my case. The cancer had eaten away more than half of my L3 vertebrae, and I was on bed rest because of the high risk of further damage to my vertebrae. I had to stop my MS medicine, so it wouldn’t interfere with the immediate treatment of the cancer. I was also going through multiple brain MRIs, CT scans, and a PET scan to see where else the cancer had metastasized besides my back. Dr. Zakem also ordered genomic testing done from the biopsy in June, the results of which would take some time. We were meeting with the neurosurgeon about the surgery plan to remove the mass in my back as well.
We had multiple appointments with Dr. Zakem before I was to have the surgery done at the end of July. Up until this point, there were a lot of unknowns and uncertainty until our last appointment before surgery. At that final appointment, Dr. Zakem bounded in the room with a big smile on his face. We found out the cancer had spread to my back, brain and hip, but there was no cancer in my lungs. The cancer started in my lungs but it was absorbed. He was very excited about my treatment options with the results from the genomic testing. He said I had metastatic non-small-cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC) stage 4 lung cancer. The biomarker showed, from the genomic testing, that there was a targeted therapy to treat it. This was great news! Looking back on that day, it’s clear I hit the jackpot!
I had a type of lung cancer that was treatable with a targeted therapy pill which I would take daily. Dr. Zakem said there was a very high response rate to this medicine. We were making a plan on how to attack the cancer, but had to focus on the vertebrae, and couldn’t start any treatment until after surgery and recovery.
At the end of July, I had two surgeries within a week of each other. In the first surgery, the most amazing neurosurgeon, Dr. Vogel, removed the tumor and replaced almost the entire L3 vertebrae with a cage, called a corpectomy, along with a spinal fusion of the L2, L3 and L4. The second surgery was for the laminectomy and decompression on the L3. Total time spent in the surgeries equaled about 12 hours.
In August, after the scars were healed enough, I got the green light from the neurosurgeon to start radiation for about a month on my back, brain and hip. Apparently, we had wait to radiate the existing cancer before I started the targeted therapy.
In September, I was focusing on getting strong enough to walk and recover by doing physical therapy. It takes about 1 ½ years to recover from the back surgery. After the scar healed for my back, the radiation appointments were daily on a few targeted areas in my brain, my back and hip to finish out September and celebrate the 2018 Pink Arrow Football game. The good news was radiation cleared up almost all of the remaining cancer.
In October, I started the targeted therapy daily pill, Tagrisso. This is a newer lung cancer medication on the market that is specific to my age, gender, having never smoked, and to people who have certain types of EGFR genes. Targeted therapies work on specific cancer genes to block the growth and spread of cancer cells. I also started new MS medicine, which is a shot three times a week. I had PET scans in December and April. There were no signs of cancer, and I am considered in remission. This is wonderful news! I will continue with regular PET scans to verify that the drug is still effective. We will look at other options if the cancer comes back.
Fast forward to today! I look back at the past 1 1/2 years overwhelmed with how I have grown through this journey. I really try my best every day to stay positive and be thankful for the blessings. God has played an increased role in my life. I set daily goals for the challenges I am faced with and focus on getting stronger to fight my next battle. It has been an amazing year with the support I have received from family and friends.
My motto comes from a story about my older brother, Tony, who loved to pick on me growing up. He would put me in wrestling moves and tried to get me to say “Uncle” so that he would win. I would never say “Uncle” as much as he tried. (Have I mentioned before that I am stubborn?) We have always joked about it over the years, but today it has taken on real meaning to us. The story, as in my life now, is that I will never give up, never give in, and I will never say “Uncle.”