For GPs

Living With Lung Cancer: Julie’s Story

20 Nov 2017

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month in Australia. It’s estimated that almost 12,500 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in Australia during 2017. The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with lung cancer is about 16%.  It is estimated that it will remain the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in 2017.

Julie Rowen (pictured) from Mackay in north Queensland has been living with lung cancer for four years. Here she shares her story and how radiation therapy and other treatments – together with her amazing resilience – have helped her deal with her prognosis:

As a nurse, Julie Rowen dedicated her life to helping sick people, but the last four years have shown she knows a thing or two about surviving herself.

The married mother-of-three developed a persistent cough about four years ago when aged 52. She was initially diagnosed with possible pneumonia and was treated with antibiotics but the cough continued.

 Her doctor sent her for CT scans which revealed the terrible news – not only did she have a “peanut-sized” cancerous tumour in her lung, but the disease had also metastasised (spread) to her brain.

“As a nurse I realised that several radiographers crammed around the screen looking at the scan results could not be good news,” she said.   “It felt surreal to find myself now being the patient.”

Julie was referred to a Brisbane Radiation Oncologist who arranged a planning day for fitting of the full head mask. She received whole brain radiation over the course of the week and was told she could have no further radiation to the brain with exception of stereotactic treatment to individual tumours.

“The radiation therapists were very supportive and reassuring, as having your head mask bolted to the table was quite claustrophobic,” Julie said.

“There wasn’t much time to be nervous though as each daily session only lasted about five minutes.”

Julie was surprised to learn that the radiation continues to work for several weeks and this was reflected in subsequent scans as all her tumours had decreased in size.

“My only side effect from the treatment was the loss of my beautiful curls,” she said.  “I had been told about other potential side effects like fatigue and memory loss.”

Julie then underwent chemotherapy for the following 18 months until 2015 when the cancer re-appeared.

“By this stage I was well and truly over chemo,” Julie, whose first grandchild was born recently,  said. “I had had a pulmonary embolism and relentless nausea so I didn’t want to continue.”

Julie got a biopsy of lung tumour which showed she was a match for targeted therapy  – drug treatments that prevent cancer calls growing by attacking specific cancer cell proteins or molecules that normally help them grow – and commenced treatment.

“I was told it only worked for eight to twelve months but two and a half years later I am still on it,” she said. “I’m going for the record!

“People have given me some very odd advice at times about treatment.  One person even suggested that I try one teaspoon of sheep dip every day and I thought what are you trying to do – kill me quicker?!”.

“I’ve tried to eat healthier but my main thing is I try to live in the present.  Maybe there is a bit of denial but I’ve found taking it day-by-day has helped,”  she said.

“I know this cancer is incurable but I am living with it and through my  recent treatment I have been able to live a normal and full life.  I have thought about missing my children and grandchild growing up but I think if you dwell on things like that you’re in trouble.

“I think I’m in a good place.”

The Targeting Cancer website has a wealth of awareness on lung cancer, including symptoms, causes and treatments.

For more information, click here.