Terri Conneran had been living with asthma for a decade before she started to experience serious breathing issues. Conneran, who was 55 at the time, tells Yahoo Life that she especially struggled with breathing normally in hot, humid weather.
“It was getting harder to breathe,” she says. “I went back and forth to my doctors eight to 10 times over the course of two years.” Conneran says doctors kept changing her asthma medication and listening to her lungs “but we didn’t pursue anything farther.”
“From the asthma, they told me, ‘We’ll give the new medication some time to work’ or ‘it’s probably allergies,’” she says. Finally, during the holiday season in 2016, Conneran says she felt “so sick.”
So, she went back to her doctor, assuming that she needed antibiotics for an infection. “I was expecting to have a cold or something, but my doctors said she could hear major fluid in my lungs,” she says. Conneran was diagnosed with pneumonia and sent for a chest X-ray. Conneran says the diagnosis saved her life—it helped doctors see a tumor in her lung clearly.
“I had so much fluid that you could see the tumor in there—tumors normally just hide,” she says. Conneran was treated for pneumonia, while her doctors ordered additional testing to be done right after the holidays.
Conneran didn’t know for sure that she had cancer, but doctors suspected it. It was right before Christmas, and Conneran decided to keep the news a secret from her family—only her husband knew. “I didn’t want to ruin their Christmas,” she says. She waited until the New Year to share what she knew.
“I was completely terrified,” Conneran remembers. “I wanted to see and talk to somebody who had been through what I had gone through, what I was facing and know that there was another side. I needed desperately to talk to someone.”
The first week in January 2017, Conneran went through four different scans and a biopsy to get a proper diagnosis. At one point, she was told it didn’t look like cancer. But, when the biopsy results came back, it was official: She had lung cancer. “It was one of those out of body moments,” Conneran says.
Conneran didn’t sleep particularly well that night. “I woke up and my chest was heavy,” she says. “I was falling over. My arm was killing me. I thought I was just stressed, but my husband insisted on taking me to the ER.”
Once she was there, doctors determined that her lung was full of fluid. “I had a bad reaction to the biopsy and I was drowning in fluid,” she says. Conneran was admitted to the hospital and had two liters of fluid drained from her lung. She also found out she had stage 3 lung cancer.
Doctors determined a course of treatment for her: She would have the lower lobe of her left lung removed and do chemotherapy. The treatment was successful and the cancer was gone—but it didn’t stay away.
Conneran had no disease for nearly two years but, since then, she has had three recurrences that lead to radiation and an ablation, a type of minimally invasive surgery used to destroy abnormal tissue.
Conneran has also become involved in the lung cancer community. She’s on the board of the Dusty Joy Foundation, which hosts lung cancer support groups, and is also the director and founder of KRAS Kickers, a group for people with her specific type of cancer. “I want to give back and help other people,” she says. “It’s so important for people to be able to talk about this.”
“Right now, I have no evidence of disease. I’m not on daily therapy, nothing,” Conneran says. Instead, she says, her doctors are treating her cancer “like Whack-a-Mole.”
“I’ve responded extremely well to treatment, chemo and radiation,” she says. “Statistically, it’s going to come back. But all I know I can do is keep delaying and keep living and keep moving. A moving target is harder to hit.”
Conneran urges other lung cancer patients to know that there are others going through the same thing. “You are not alone,” she says. “Hope shared is hope multiplied. Reach out and get connected.”