Pictured is Kym Maslyn, 52, looking beautiful, happy and healthy while relaxing on the back porch of her home in Phelps last week.
Unfortunately, looks can be quite deceiving. Kym was diagnosed late last year with stage 4 lung cancer. Her life expectancy is now about 3-5 years.
Lung cancer is the third-most common cancer in the United States, but some may be surprised to learn that more people die from it than any other type of cancer.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s a big reason why Kym has chosen to tell her story. She hopes that someone may benefit since there can be a lack of knowledge among both patients and physicians about effective risk reduction and treatment options.
Kym was never a smoker. With no obvious symptoms of the disease, she learned she had it in a rather incidental way.
In January 2019 she decided to see about donating one of her kidneys to an uncle of her husband. It wasn’t surprising she would consider that because she has been part of the nursing profession for 30 years. Her mom also was a nurse. The desire to help comes naturally for her.
To donate a kidney one has to go through a series of many tests, including a stress test, CAT scans and blood work — 24 vials’ worth. All those were done that April and resulted in two discoveries.
One, Kym had an aneurysm in the wall of an artery leading to her kidney that would have to be repaired, ending her effort to donate.
The second “catch” was a small mass on her left lung discovered in a CAT scan. It wasn’t seen on any X-ray. A month later she underwent a biopsy. That meant going through the bronchial passage and into the lung. It came back negative — a good thing. It was thought the mass possibly was scar tissue. At that point Kym was not experiencing any pain, shortness of breath, or other symptoms.
That would change.
A short time later, she began to experience pain and a cough. Soon it was painful to just lay down. The decision was made, in October 2019 to have a PET scan. This time that mass “lit up” on the scan.
Dec. 4, 2019 is what Kym calls one of the two worst days of her life (the other being the day her mom died). She was scheduled to have surgery for a wedge resection of the lower lobe of her left lung. When she woke up in recovery she realized it had only been a couple hours, far shorter than what the surgery called for.
Moments later her tearful husband informed her she had stage 4 lung cancer, along with cancer along the chest wall, in fluid around the lung and in a lymph node. Since the cancer had spread, the mass was left as is rather than aggravating it further.
Kym was somewhat fortunate to learn later that her biomarker test showed the cancer as EGFR-positive, with evidence of an EGFR mutation. Advances in lung cancer treatment have made it possible to target proteins to halt the growth of cancer cells. Sadly, the one pill a day (Tagrisso) Kym takes will be effective only for a year to 18 months. But for now it has given back her life, as the mass has been reduced by half and has stopped spreading. Next up she hopes to participate in some clinical trials.
That was a review of the medical side of things. It is the real-life daily aspect of her present situation with which readers might best empathize.
Does anyone ever really know how they will react when unexpectedly faced with their own mortality? Kym has two children and a grandchild, with another on the way. There is so much to live for, and she uses that as motivation to stay strong and positive. She vows to do whatever it takes to help extend her life.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a worse time.
She still feels well enough to travel — and has family in New York City and California — but she can’t. A desire to see Europe for the first time is not possible. While she wants to be around friends and family as much as possible, it’s too risky. As she was telling me this, the thought of it all brought her to tears.
In some ways she says she feels more anger over the COVID-19 situation than anything else. The virus is particularly harmful for those with lung issues and suppressed immune systems. With time not exactly on her side, COVID-19 is greatly restricting when she can hug and kiss her children and grandchildren.
Kym recommends everyone to be acutely tuned to their body — on all levels. If something does not feel right, be proactive even if the doctors are not on the same page. You know you best.
For now Kym finds more inspiration than ever in quotes she reads. Her favorite is shown on the coffee cup in the inset photo: “Once you choose hope, anything is possible.” It is credited to Christopher Reeves (aka “Superman”).
During her recent cancer journey, Kym has met another non-smoker who also has lung cancer, Val Cleary of Victor. In an odd coincidence, she counts Dec. 7, 2019 (three days after Kym) as one of the worst days of her life. Then 48 and fit, the wife and mother of two teenagers was alerted to the first indication of a mass on her lung. On Jan. 2 an oncologist told her the cancer was stage 3. She felt like the world was ending for her.
Originally from Argentina, Val has always battled allergies and suffered coughing episodes, but the coughs she was experiencing months before that diagnosis were hard, hurtful ones that she could not seem to shake. Many tests and doctors later, a cancer mass in her left lung was removed, along with some lymph nodes. She endured many rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
Fortunately, the forecast for her looks good. She said she feels great and has 80% of her lung capacity.
Val says the love and support of her family were immeasurable. She feels that love is powerful and has helped her throughout the treatment. The thought of going through it alone would have been frightening. They helped her remain positive and upbeat. As of Aug. 2 her treatment was finished, and her regular checkups have been very good.
She now thanks God every day, and feels her dad in heaven was taking care of her.
Jenn Keefe of Farmington also has lung cancer. She too has connected with Kym in what has become a support network of sorts.
In 2017, at 37, while holding down two jobs, the mother of three active boys contracted a cold, which led to coughing, laryngitis and major fatigue that lasted close to six weeks. Doctors at urgent care put her on antibiotics, steroids, etc. before her primary care doctor ordered X-rays. Like Kym and Val, a CAT scan revealed a mass on her lung. Also a non-smoker, she was similarly shocked to hear lung cancer as a diagnosis.
Making things worse was her biomarker testing. It came back positive for the KRAS mutation, one of the most common mutations and notoriously difficult to treat, thereby limiting options. She went in for surgery only to learn the cancer had spread. Jenn went through countless rounds of chemo and radiation in the hope that things would look better if there was no recurrence in the first two years.
That didn’t happen. In September 2018 she was found to have stage 4 cancer.
All three of these women seemed to find out by accident that they had advanced lung cancer.
“From a silly cold to lung cancer?!” Jenn said before offering the following advice: “If it doesn’t seem right then go get checked. Don’t wait. Advocate for yourself. If you have a nagging cough, laryngitis, shoulder pain, fatigue, sudden weight loss without trying, then ask for a low dose CAT scan of your lungs.”
These three women know firsthand that every day is precious.