by Cassy Morris
Cassy never thought anything like this would happen to her, she'd never given lung cancer a second thought. Why would she?
MY name is Cassy Morris, I'm from Victoria and I'm a 43-year-old mother of three gorgeous girls, Tahlia aged 10, Kiara aged six and Harper aged four.
On the 19th of June, this year my whole world was turned upside down. I was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most advanced form of the disease. In stage IV, the cancer has metastasized, or spread, beyond the lungs into other areas of the body. There is a one percent survival rate beyond five years for those with advanced stages of lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and the fifth most common cancer diagnosed in Australia. It is Australia's biggest killer cancer, more deadly than breast, ovarian and prostate cancers combined!
There is no cure for lung cancer and one Australian dies every hour of lung cancer.
I'm telling you my story to show you that anyone can get lung cancer and we need to stop the stigma. Recent research has revealed one-third of Australians believe people with lung disease have only themselves to blame, while one in ten will say they got what they deserved.
A backache that didn't go away
It all started with simple back pain on the 5th of May. My extremely skilled and intuitive Osteopath suggested I get an X-ray on my thoracic spine after two treatments on my back showed no improvement.
I went to visit my GP to get a referral for an X-ray which she was hesitant to do because she felt it wouldn't show anything and I was too young for degeneration of the bones. Despite her reluctance to give me the referral, I asked for one anyway.
Although my X-ray didn't show anything concerning, my Osteopath wanted to investigate further and insisted I request an MRI. I went to see a different GP and again was faced with resistance. She tried to talk me out of it, saying it was expensive and unnecessary, fortunately for me, I have trust in my Osteopath and I insisted on the referral.
The result no one expected
I had the MRI on the 5th of June, and the GP called me back less than two hours later to tell me that the test had shown a 2.3cm nodule in my left lung. The GP reassured me it could be scar tissue from a recent infection, but we needed to do further tests. I was sent for an urgent CT scan, which I had the next day.
On Wednesday the 7th June, Kane (my adoring husband) and I went to get the results of the CT scan which showed that they found another nodule!
This was not the news we were expecting and now things started to seem serious.
I was scared but still hopeful as I was referred to a respiratory specialist for an urgent appointment. I met with them two days later and was told that we had to act fast as this could be very serious. I had a blood test and was scheduled for a lung function test, a PET scan and a bronchoscopy.
I also had a biopsy done on my lymph nodes, this was this first time I realised that it was not only my lungs they were concerned about. Suddenly the severity of the whole thing began to hit home, Kane was inconsolable, the thought of this being cancer was scary, but it seemed more of a possibility now. It was a tough drive home.
I was still trying to remain positive and hopeful that maybe what they found in my lymph nodes was unrelated to the possible benign nodules in my lungs, but I had the sinking feeling it was more than that.
The day that changed everything
Monday the 19th of June, the day I'll never forget. We had an appointment with the specialist, Dr Tesfai, to find out the results of my biopsy. Nothing could prepare us for the news we were about to receive.
"It's lung cancer," he said.
Do you know the phrase 'my heart sank?' I always thought it was a metaphor, but that day as I heard those words, I physically felt my heart sink deep into my chest. I clenched Kane's hand, as he started to cry.
We asked: how? Why? How could this be?
It was an outer body experience, I felt as though the Doctor was talking about someone else. How could this be about me? I'm healthy, I don't smoke, I'm young. How can I have lung cancer?
I asked the doctor if it was anywhere beyond my lungs and lymph nodes.
"Yes," he replied.
"It's stage four lung cancer. It's in your spine, which explains your back pain, in your liver, pelvis, lymph nodes and lungs."
I was stunned and silent, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. My first reaction was NO this is not going to be the end of me. I've got three young daughters who need me, they need me for a long time. I need to be here for them, I'm not going anywhere. I want to see them grow, I want to see Harper start school, I want to see them finish school, I want to see them get married and have their own kids. I need to be here!
Kane was understandably beside himself, he could not understand it and kept saying that I can't leave him and that this was so unfair. He just couldn't stop crying and shaking as we both sat there feeling numb from shock.
Dr Tesfai advised he had arranged an appointment with an Oncologist for the next day, and said I would need radiotherapy and another biopsy soon.
"I hate to leave you"
That night we went home and tried to keep things normal for the kids.
Each night, I sing "Goodnight sweetheart" to my girls before they go to sleep, tonight the words meant so much more, and it was through tears that I sang "...I hate to leave you, but I really must go. So, goodnight sweetheart, goodnight."
The next day I woke up and unfortunately it wasn't all a bad dream. I couldn't imagine sending the girls to school that day, so I decided to spend a fun day with them at the Enchanted Maze in Ashcombe. I never wanted to let them go, I needed every precious moment with them. Every minute apart was time I'd never have with them. The girls enjoyed their day but they knew something was up.
Telling them was one of the hardest moments of my life. They knew I was sick and I had back pain, but we decided that they should know everything. I told the girls that the doctors did know what was wrong with Mummy and that it is cancer. I told them that I'm ok and that I'm strong and I'm not going anywhere.
"Are you going to die soon?" Kiara asked me.
"Will you be here when I'm older?"
I struggled to hold it together because I couldn't answer her question, no one could. Tahlia said she knew it was cancer (she's a clever cookie) and wanted to know what type of cancer it was, she was holding back tears as she asked me. My poor dolls, I hated having to tell them this and to see them hurting.
They were scared. I was scared. I didn't want this for them. It was so unfair that they should have to know about anything this horribly, they should be certain that I'll be there always. It physically pained me to think that my girls were going to have to see me get sicker, to know that their lives would be permanently changed.
I hold onto hope
Since that day, I have had radiation therapy, another biopsy to determine the genetic mutation of the cancer, and I have been on a targeted treatment and bone strengthening intravenous that I have every month.
So far I have been doing OK and have been responding well to the treatment, there has been considerable shrinkage in the tumours, which is fantastic.
But what this experience has taught me, is that not enough people are aware of lung cancer as a risk. I know I wasn't until I got diagnosed.
This stigma surrounding lung disease has a devastating impact on the level of funding, research and support available to people living with lung cancer.
Like me, 1 in 3 women with lung cancer are non-smokers, in fact, 20 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers. Anyone can get lung cancer.
I have never smoked a day in my life. My parents never smoked, my husband doesn't smoke. I'm not around passive smoke or other environmental risks (such as asbestos). I was just unlucky and got lung cancer.
And because there are no early detection tests, 40 percent of people with lung cancer are diagnosed at Stage IV.
During November "Lung Cancer Awareness Month" We need to help raise awareness, remove the stigma and get more funding. Because more funding leads to more research and more research means better treatments and saving lives.