An Interview with a Stage 4 Lung Cancer Fighter
By: Kayla Dresher, Jenna Lindman
I connected with Kayla through the Stupid Cancer Great Lakes Facebook Group. When through her interview, I was shocked, saddened, impressed and more importantly- felt myself rooting for her. I don’t know Kayla, but I do know that she’s one tough cookie. Kayla, like me, was diagnosed with cancer at 24 years old. Kayla is now 27, and still battling with her cancer. In her interview, she explains the months of physical pain she went through before she received a diagnosis. A lesson that, I think, Kayla and I have both learned: to trust your body and not be stubborn about your self-care.
I asked Kayla after the interview if she felt she had missed out on a part of her youth. Her answer was what I suspected: Yes. “I feel like my life is still on pause from the moment I was told it was cancer. I had so many plans for my life and now I feel robbed of those plans.” And despite these feelings, Kayla keeps going and keeps finding strength. Kayla, thank you so much for sharing your journey with us.
Kayla Drescher is 27 years old from Marion, IN. She currently lives in Muncie, IN with her boyfriend, Tyler. Kayla was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer in May of 2016. She attended Ball State University up until her diagnosis. After going into remission for a short time in 2017, the cancer came back. She currently works at JC Penny after leaving her management job of six years. In her free time, she enjoys crafting, crocheting, painting, and exploring new places with Tyler.
What is the story behind how you found out you had cancer?
When I came back to campus for the second semester everything was going great. My new roommate Kate was amazing and we started to become the best of friends, plus I started talking to a guy that liked me. At the begging of February, I noticed some weird pains on my left side. I would only feel these sharp pains whenever I sneezed. But as stubborn as I am, I would ignore them for months until things would get much worse.
By March the pains were still there. I noticed them become a more frequent thing. I finally decided when I went on spring break I would go to Med Express back in my home town and try and see what is causing the pain. Well, they were no help at all to me! They told me that where I was experiencing pain, that I could have broken or bruised a rib and that was it. They offered to take an x-ray (which I would later regret), but I said no to it because I knew it wasn’t neither one of those because I never did anything to hurt my ribs and I didn’t have any discoloration around that area either. I ended up just trying to deal with the pain and was hoping maybe it would just go away on its own.
It is now April, and the pain is still there and now it happens not only when I sneeze but when I take a deep breath in. Even engaging in any physical activity even would become too much for me. I found myself becoming short of breath just walking around campus or going up a set of stairs. Around the second week in April I developed a new symptom. It was a Thursday night and me and my roommate decided to have a Netflix night. I was laying on the futon while my roommate was sitting at her desk. Not doing much of anything, I then started to have this compressed feeling come over my chest. I felt like someone was sitting on my chest and I was having trouble getting any air. I got up and put my hands over my head and started walking around my dorm trying to catch my breath. After several minutes of walking around, my roommate told me to try and take a drink of water, to see if that would help. After a while I started to breath normal again. My roommate offered to take me to the hospital but I decided against it and said I would go back to Med Express but go to [a different location].
I went to Med Express and told the doctors my symptoms and the new one I had that Thursday night. They decide to do an x-ray and a EKG on me. My EKG came back normal but the x-ray was a different story. I could see a fuzzing mass around one of my lungs but I couldn’t make out what it is. The doctor said it looked like pneumonia. I remember thinking it couldn’t be pneumonia because I didn’t feel sick. She gave me an antibiotic for ten days.
Six days had passed, my roommate and I decided to do a little celebrating because we had gotten our big papers and projects done for this semester. We decided to watch some Netflix and have a drink. I was laying on the futon, I had only taken a couple sips of my drink when it happened; I started having that feeling again where I felt like someone was sitting on my chest. This time it was much more intense. I started walking around the room with my hands over my head and then took a drink of water like I did the last time- it didn’t work. I felt like I was hyperventilating. I decided to go out into the hallway of my dorm and started waking, thinking a bigger area to walk would help me. It didn’t help either. I asked my roommate to take me to the hospital.
I walked into the E.R but I could hardly speak because that restricted my breathing even more. They brought me back to a room right away. My roommate Kate explained to the doctors what had happened. They gave me some oxygen and I then started to breath normally and things started to feel better. They ran some test on me (CT scans and lab work), the doctor [came back] said that he saw the mass but doesn’t think it’s pneumonia. [The doctor] was going to test to see if it could be a fungal or bacterial infection.
I told my roommate to take my car and head back to the dorm so she could get some sleep, I on the other hand could not sleep. That morning they wanted to do a thoracentesis on me, because there was a lot of fluid on my left lung. Before they could do that on me they had to get some blood. It took them all morning and part of the evening to get my blood; they went through 3 or 4 nurses and had my arms bruised up and down. I had been stuck with a needle over 12 times. I [was] tired, in pain, hungry and thirsty, but I had to get this thoracentesis. So, when I get brought back to this small room, I am told right before they stick me that they are going to numb my back and then stick this long needle in me to get this fluid, so they can run test on it. I felt the numbing medicine go into my back and then shortly after doing that I feel this sharp pain. I COULD FEEL THE NEEDLE! The numbing medicine was not working. I remember telling one of the nurses that I was going to pass out. My body went limp and cold. I could hear the nurses saying my heart rate was dropping. One of the nurses put something under my nose that had an awful smell and it woke me up.
I spent the next several days in the hospital and went through different test and scans to figure out what was happening to me. I was finally released on a Tuesday, [the same day] I had a presentation at 2:30 for one of my classes I was taking for college. I rushed out of the hospital so I could try to make it to my class. It was right cross the street from the hospital. Sadly, I was 5 minutes too late.
The semester had ended and I hadn’t heard back from the doctor. I ended up moving in with my mom and grandma for the summer until school started back. Weeks would go by with no news on what the results from my test would show. I had a felling this was more than a fungal infection (that’s what they thought it was). On May 26th of 2016 around 3:30PM, I would get my answer. I was lying in bed taking a nap before I had to work. I heard the phone ring and my mom answering it. I remember her coming into my room going through my medicine and talking on the phone. She then left and I just laid there waiting for her to come into the room again. I was quiet for probably three minutes or so, then I started to hear crying. My mom walked into the room, and my back was turned to her but I could hear her sobbing and she was trying to say my name to tell me that she had talked to the doctor. I already knew what she was going to say. I said to myself was ” F****… its cancer”….
What were the emotions you felt when you were told your diagnosis?
I was a little in shock when I found out but I was also sad and very angry. I was told by my mom over a phone call by my doctor. But the shock was even greater when I met with my oncology doctor and found out all the details about my cancer. When my doctor told me it was at stage 4, I thought he was going to put a date on my life.
How did you tell your family or friends and how did they react?
Well, my mom ended up telling majority of my family. Then I told my closest friends and now-boyfriend as soon as I found out. They were all very devastated about the news but all where very supportive and have stuck behind me ever since.
What was your treatment plan?
At the beginning, my treatment plan was to do eight rounds of chemo and then do follow-up scans. I was in remission at the begging of 2017, but was short-lived when the cancer started growing back in March. I did several more rounds of chemo with an additional five rounds of radiation.
My cancer is currently in the left hilar of my lung. Still waiting for results from my doctor from my PET scan on December 27th 2018. Right now, my oncologist just wants me to continue with my chemo treatments because if I get off of it then my cancer will just spread or continue in growth. I have currently done 31 rounds of chemo.
How did cancer change your daily routine? Did it impact your relationships?
Cancer changed how I am currently living my life. I had to give up my job, schooling and my future plans I had set for myself. I was such an active person when I was working and going to school. Now, I feel trapped by the cancer because the energy I had is gone and the motivation to do anything was no longer there. The one thing that has kept me going would have to be my relationship with my boyfriend, Tyler. He has been a great supporter for me and always tries to find ways to keep me smiling and to stay positive during this hard time.
What was the hardest thing you faced while going through treatment?
The hardest thing I have had to face during treatments would have to be the side effects. I would always develop some kind of infection or open wound that would either cause me to go to the hospital or just cause me so much pain.
Did you have a caretaker? If so, could you tell us about what that was like?
My mother and grandmother took care of me a lot at the beginning when I was at my worst. They helped me with my medicine and with driving me to my appointments. They still help me till this day, but since My boyfriend and I have our own place, he has stepped up and helps me when I need it.
If a friend of yours was diagnosed with the same cancer, what would you want them to know?
I would want them to know that they are not alone in this fight. Also, do research on the cancer you have so you can bring up different treatments to your doctor. The best advice I had received from people was to get a second option.
If there was a moment(s) where you felt hopeless, how did you get through that?
The times I felt the most hopeless were after doctor appointments when they would tell me that my cancer has either increased or hasn’t changed at all. I normally would keep my mind busy by going out with friends and family or doing some sort of craft just to keep my mind from going to a dark place.
Sometimes, people report feeling abandoned, scared, or feeling that no one understands them through parts (or all) of their cancer journey. Did you ever feel like this? If so how did you cope, and how would you suggest others cope?
Oh, I feel like this all the time. When it comes to my cancer my family is split. I have one side that thinks I am ready to kick the bucket any day and the other side thinks that everything is okay and everything isn’t as bad as what it seems. It’s hard for me to express my emotions to any of them because of their own opinions. I always found comfort in my best friend who I would tell everything to and she never judged me for what I thought. I believe that there are ways to avoid having those feelings but everyone that I have talked to that has had cancer has [experienced] emotions where they feel scared and not understood. The best way I have coped through it is by humor. I always try and find a way to laugh even if it isn’t funny to others.
Was there anything someone said to you about your cancer journey that really bothered you?
I had a family member tell me that they didn’t know how to talk to me because I had cancer. This really bothered me because I felt like that I was still me but I was being treated like I was an outcast. People need to understand that just because someone has cancer doesn’t mean you have to treat them differently. They are still the same people you know and love. They might have to change their routine to fit their health, but they are still people who want to live life as much as you.
Is there anything that has transformed in your attitude or outlook since being diagnosed?
I never take anything for granted anymore. Life is a precious thing to have and I try and do as much as I can with the life that I have.
Are there any challenges you face now?
I still fight through my own emotions and deal with my negative thoughts about my cancer. There are times that I just want to cry and give up. I know the feelings will pass but at that moment I feel the weakest.
Are there any resources you know about that were helpful for you (i.e. a blog, a book, an organization, a support group)?
I have found that talking to a counselor and having her help me find groups or other people to talk to has helped me. I also find comfort in articles that I find online that talk about lung cancer and how those people have beat the odds.
What else would you like to share?
I would like to say to anyone who has to go through fighting cancer that you are not alone. There are people out there that do understand what you are going through and there is a lot of help to get you through this tough moment in your life. The fight is hard but when you beat it, it will be the greatest success you will achieve for your life.
Note from the Jenna: Sometimes the best therapy is just talking to someone who’s been there. Imerman Angels One-on-One Cancer Support was created on the belief that no one should face cancer alone. While we recognize that each life situation is unique, we connect those that are predisposed to receive a cancer diagnosis, cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers with “Mentor Angels” – a previvor, a cancer survivor or caregiver who is as similar as possible in age, gender, and most importantly, experience. Mentor Angels provide chance to ask personal questions and receive support from a peer who has been down the same road before. The service is absolutely free and helps anyone touched by any type of cancer, at any stage, at any age, living anywhere in the world. We want to ensure no one faces cancer alone -together we are stronger! Go to www.imermanangels.org to find out more.