With all the terrifying talk about missed diagnoses, we asked readers to share their experiences of diagnoses and treatment that came “just in time.” We’d like you to meet Peter Brown, a lung cancer survivor.
Peter Brown was diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 lung cancer in 2019, but he says he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. He wanted to spend more time with his wife, kids and seven grandkids, and take care of his three-acre property in Mountain, a small community about 40km south of Ottawa, Ont. Brown, now 83, was prepared to do whatever his two oncologists at the Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre needed him to do. As of November 2021, after his last treatment, there is no evidence of the cancer. His CT scans are all clear. (Congratulations, Peter!) He calls his recovery miraculous — and a story worth sharing to give others hope and determination to see it through.
It all started in 2018 with a bad cough. I thought I had a sinus infection or something like that. I went to my family doctor and he gave me a nasal spray to cure it up. At the same time, he was in the process of gearing down his practice and retiring. Anyway, it didn’t improve, and by the late spring of 2019 we were out doing some yard work and I had to sit down about every five minutes to catch my breath. That wasn’t like me.
So in August, I got a new prescription for a nasal spray from a new doctor. I also noticed my blood pressure seemed to be out of whack, going down. So I decided to go to the Emergency in Kemptville. And I told my wife Vicki, ‘If there’s a lineup, I’m coming right back home.’ Luckily, there was nobody there and I got right in. I have to mention the ER doctor’s name because he started the ball rolling: Dr. Shawn O’Donnell.
He looked me over and said, “I don’t like what I’m hearing and seeing.” He sent me for an x-ray, and when it came back, he said, “Nope, this isn’t good. There’s something on one of your lungs. I’m going to book you in Winchester hospital for a CT scan.” He was on top of things.
The scan was scheduled for late September, but I got a call a couple of days before from the hospital saying that my appointment was going to be bumped. But by that time, things had degenerated. I said, “No, you’re not. I can hardly breathe.” They said they would call me back. They did, and asked me to be there in 15 minutes. Well, we made it in 15.
‘I didn’t know they were setting up palliative care for me’
I had the CT scan, but things weren’t good. Later than month, I had two litres of fluid drained from my left side, and the doctors planned to do a biopsy on the fluid. About a week later, I had a drain device installed on my left side that had a plug on the end, and a nurse was coming three times a week to drain the fluid.
I didn’t know that when they were setting this all up that they were also setting up palliative care for me. I was going along thinking things were going to get better. When they asked me if I wanted a Do Not Resuscitate Order, I was thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’
Then I met with the oncologists, Dr. Peter Cross and Dr. Paul Francis Wheatley-Price, to discuss the options. They informed me that I had stage 4 lung cancer. My whole family was there and it hit me like it hit everybody else. I was in denial of some sort. And they explained that they didn’t know yet what the biopsy would show.
But they put me on 10 doses of radiation from October 30 right up till mid-November. I never lost any hair, but— and I have to joke about this — when they had to line up where they were going to aim the radiation, they used tattoo dots. So I have eight tattoos on my chest! I also lost about 45 or 50 pounds — but I’ve put it all back on again since.
After I started the radiation, Dr. Wheatley-Price met with us and said that he had good news about the biopsy. Turns out that I had a 27mm spot on my left lung and something on my lymph nodes around my neck. The good news was that the cancer was non-small cell lung cancer, which can be treated with immunotherapy. It’s a heck of a lot better than chemotherapy — you have no side effects. Or if you do, they’re very minor. To get this treatment, 50 per cent of your cancer cells have to [express a protein called PD-L1] and mine were 100 per cent, so the whole cancer could be treated. One of my sons said that I always was a show-off.
They started immunotherapy on November 27, my 81st birthday, and by February, Dr. Wheatley-Price called me at home and he was exuberant. He told me the spot on my lungs had gone down by two-thirds and the ones on the lymph nodes had basically disappeared. We continued with the immunotherapy and regular CT scans.
Then along came COVID, but, boy, they were right on top of things. Dr. Wheatley-Price changed the immunotherapy from every three weeks to every six weeks at a double dose so I wouldn’t have to go into the hospital as frequently. I was at the Irving Greenberg Family Cancer Centre at the Queensway-Carlton Hospital. And the people there — I just can’t describe how wonderful they were, from the person who took my name down when I went in the door to the people who put the IV for the immunotherapy in my arm. They were just absolutely fantastic people.
Maybe I’m a sentimental type, but you need reassurance. I remember telling the doctor’s receptionist that everyone was so nice, and she said, “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?”
No treatable illness
By the middle of 2020, my CT scans showed absolutely no treatable illness. But I was told it was a two-year treatment program, and that we were sticking to two years. The two years were up on November 8, 2021 when I got the all-clear. The staff was great. The other patients that overheard them talking to me were congratulatory. And one of the nurses said, “There’s a bunch of people down in the parking lot with tinfoil hats on and horns.” It was my whole family. It was great — we all went out for a meal.
Now I’m under surveillance for a follow-up every three months and a CT scan every six months. But my health is pretty good. I still have shortness of breath which is caused by the radiation and scar tissue on my left side — but I still do my yard work.
My advice to others would be exactly what I said to the two oncologists. When they told me that it was stage 4 and inoperable, and they said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want you to do whatever you can, because I’m not ready to cash in.”
When people say it’s not worth it, well, it is worth it.
Do you have a story of how a diagnosis and treatment came “just in time” that you’d like to share? Email us at email@example.com.