By Marley Coxe
March 2024

“Sure, I’m tired, I’m a mom – it comes with the job. We all have days we’re exhausted.”

“I just got over being pretty sick, so my lingering cough must be the illness leaving.”

“It’s the beginning of spring; allergies are in season.”

“This nausea must be my anxiety. My grandmother just passed away – I need to take the time to process and mourn.”

“I’m so out of breath – if I would get myself into better shape, these inclines wouldn’t be so hard to walk up.”

These were the excuses I told myself.

Marley with her boys

Looking back, my symptoms started around February last year. By April, I was avoiding steps, and hills made me want to cry. My son Kane’s baseball team always sat on the side of the field with the hill ­­– I dreaded it. When I went on the 1st grade class field trip, I was determined to make it up that hill to see the giraffe, even if I had to focus everything on my breathing. I had to get myself in better shape.

Nausea took over my entire day. My doctor and I believed I was experiencing acid reflux. I was prescribed two medications and went onto a strict anti-inflammatory diet to heal my stomach. I had an endoscopy scheduled for the end of June, which was the earliest they could get me on the schedule.

In the meantime, I started to feel it was more than acid reflux and fought with my doctor to listen. I was told: acid reflux is easy to treat, take your medication as prescribed, and change your diet. As usual, I felt embarrassed that I let myself get into this condition.

Getting a long-avoided test

I have a hemangioma on my liver and had put off getting an MRI since I knew it was just a strawberry mark. I didn’t feel like giving two hours of free time to lie in an MRI tube, so I had rescheduled that appointment so many times. I finally had the test, and I’m so glad I did.

The MRI took place after my acid reflux diagnosis and before my scheduled endoscopy. The MRI results showed my liver was fine. But the images showed enough of my left lung to indicate it had collapsed. Those results excited me. I wanted to scream, “I’m not crying wolf!”

The evening I received my MRI results, I was scheduled for a CT scan and lots of bloodwork. I didn’t think it was cancer. I truly believed I had an infection or maybe Covid.

Things moved pretty fast. The next afternoon – the second to last day before Kane would finish 1st grade – I was rocking my younger son, Reid, before nap time. I had an alert on my online chart that my CT results were in: “suspicion of lung cancer.” The rest of that day is a blur. I cried a lot. I cried to my family, my friends, my doctor, the nurses who called to set up my next appointments… I crumbled.

The biopsy to determine the exact type of cancer I had is where I met the pulmonologist, Dr. Ayers, a very knowledgeable and respectful doctor. Dr Ayers said he didn’t believe I had lung cancer – I was too young, too healthy. He told me he would biopsy the swollen lymph nodes in my chest and not sample the nodule in my lung.

My husband Colby, the kids, and I left for Wildwood, NJ. I knew I would be getting my biopsy results during our vacation. But again, I wasn’t worried. I truly believed that if it was cancer, it would be one that had the highest survival rates.

Day two of vacation, I was on the beach when my phone rang – it was Dr Ayers. He told me I had adenocarcinoma of the lung, how truly shocked he was, and how sorry he was to give me the diagnosis. I asked him what stage he thought the cancer was, and he explained it was at least stage 3 – and it was going to be a tough battle. I don’t remember what else he said on that phone call.

My PET scan showed my cancer had metastasized to the lymph nodes in my chest, axillary, and near my kidneys. Fluid drained from my lungs also held cancer cells. I was diagnosed with ALK positive stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer.

Combating the fear

The fear and sadness I feel is combated by the love and support I’ve been shown since diagnosis. My husband, my family, and my friends have all shown me such care. Cancer has taught me the importance of being present. My future probably doesn’t include becoming old and gray, and I’m not sure I’ll get to hold my grandchildren one day. But I’m here now – and my goals are to see the milestones in my boys’ lives.

Medicine is forever evolving, and I have so much hope that this cancer can be made into a chronic disease one day. Every 3 months, I have scans of my cancerous spots. I’ve never wanted to be called unremarkable and boring more than when those results come through! Living with lung cancer involves lots of hope and a ton of prayer.