Imagine spending 2-3 years feeling ill— battling a persistent cough, feeling constantly fatigued, and repeatedly running a fever—only to have doctors tell you that you have pneumonia or just a common cold. Their solution? "Weather the storm" until it passes. But imagine knowing, despite the doctors' assurance, that something else was wrong, and insisting on further X-rays to examine you just one more time. And now imagine finding out, at 33 years old, that you, indeed, have lung cancer.
That's what happened to Ashley Rivas, an X-ray technician from Albuquerque, New Mexico. After struggling with symptoms that wouldn't go away, she had a coworker X-ray her, only to find a shadow that was later determined to be a 3.6 cm mass tumor. Ashley underwent surgery to remove the tumor and was eventually cured.
Despite her frightening diagnosis, Ashley maintained a positive attitude and sense of humor, even giving her tumor a name: Ralph. It wasn't until after she was cured that she struggled emotionally and found it increasingly difficult to cope. Ashley has since come a long way in her recovery and learned many important lessons along the way.
LIVINGLY: How did it feel to be the one to take the initiative to get the X-ray and subsequently discover the tumor?
ASHLEY: Frustration is the first word that comes to mind. In January 2013, I once again started feeling symptoms that I had been experiencing on and off for about 2 years (a BRUTAL cough, fever, chills, fatigue). I was tired of being told to weather the storm as there was not much to be done to cure the common cold or virus, so I took matters into my own hands. I’m a radiographer and had all the right technology at my finger tips. I honestly did not expect to see much. Although I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, I was relieved/excited/anxious when I saw the round shape sitting where my right lung would be in the X-ray. I finally had some concrete evidence to prove that what I felt was more than a cold.
I copied my X-ray to a disk and took it with me to an urgent care clinic later that day. I provided the disk to the doctor who was treating me. He agreed that there was definitely something there but without a radiologist’s report it was hard to give a definitive diagnosis. He ordered his own X-rays and we had a diagnostic report shortly after. The doctor said it was a shadow caused by the position of my body when the X-ray was performed. I was now being treated for pneumonia and was sent home with antibiotics, cough syrup, and an inhaler. I should have been relieved, but I felt uneasy and defeated.
It wasn’t until early March 2013 when my symptoms returned. It was then that I decided that something was not right. I returned to the urgent care clinic the next day. I was treated by a different doctor this time.
We went over my history and I questioned the accuracy of my diagnosis from my previous visit. I reminded him of the suspicious spot I saw in my self-acquired X-ray and requested an order for a new set. The doctor insisted that what I had was indeed pneumonia, and he assured me that it takes time to heal from such an ailment. I was not comfortable with what he was proposing.
I continued to resist until he finally placed the order. I returned to the exam room to wait for my results. The doctor opened the door and the look on his face said it all. I was right. The suspicious spot was not a shadow. It was now being call a 3.6 cm mass. I was relieved. My intuition (and my X-ray) told me something was wrong and I was now on the road to getting better. But I was also scared. I now had a “mass” in my right lung that left me with a million questions and an apprehensiveness to learn their answers.
I know that you initially joked about your diagnosis, can you explain a little more about how you felt at that time?
I was relieved to finally understand why I had been getting so sick but I was also very anxious about the unknown. For a few weeks the only thing I knew was what my X-ray report stated — I had a 3.6 cm mass in my right lung. I didn’t know the severity, I didn’t know if I was dying, I didn’t even know if it was cancer. It was then that my boyfriend (now my husband) and I decided to take a trip to Florida. A few months prior, we received our scuba diving certification. Unsure of my future, we decided to head to Keys to plunge into the ocean and celebrate my lungs, my life, and my 33rd birthday. We returned home in time to meet with my pulmonologist and to learn that I would be losing my right lung. We celebrated the news with a round of margaritas.
What changed for you after your surgery?
I think the surgery symbolized an end. My brain was finally able to slow down and process everything, but I had a hard time sorting everything out.
I felt very lucky to have been diagnosed with a cancer that was slow growing and that allowed surgery to be the extent of my treatment, but I also felt a huge sense of loss and grief. It’s a very strange feeling to have a vital piece of anatomy removed from your body.
I found my mind wandering to the “what if realm” quite a bit. I would overwhelm myself playing out scenarios of recurrence and new surgeries. Every evening at dinner, I would try to recount my hospital stay. I hated the fog that the anesthesia and pain meds left me with so I would ask my husband a million questions to fill in the fuzzy blanks. I was so anxious and exhausted from thinking so much that dinner time often ended with a cry session. All of this was added to extreme post surgical pain and other side effects that I was not prepared for. It all became too overwhelming so I decided to seek the help of a therapist.
What’s one thing you want to communicate to others (those battling cancer or not)?
Be your best advocate. Especially with healthcare but also with life in general. Never be afraid to ask for help. Never be afraid to ask questions. Never be afraid to speak up when you don’t agree with something. Research. Trust your intuition. Doing so will help you get what you need and come out ahead. You’ll be well informed, and you might even help someone else along the way.
Here at Livingly our motto is "live life beautifully." What does living life beautifully mean to you?
To live life beautifully is to watch sunbeams shine between autumn leaves on a tree. To watch the feathery pink clouds move across the sky. To see dewdrops on tomatoes and bees on flowers. To pet a horses face and to gaze over a river valley. To watch the sunset over a lake and to float on a river with your best friend. To plant a garden and watch it grow. To ponder the mysteries of the world. To walk on a beach. To feel the ocean on your skin and the wind in your hair. To run. To sweat. To look up at the moon. To breath. To laugh. To cry. To forgive. To love.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in the U.S. If diagnosed and treated at an early stage it is much more likely to be curable, but sadly, only 16% of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at this stage. Now, with the availability of lung cancer screening, we can turn the tide against lung cancer. The American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE initiative is working to educate the public about a lifesaving early detection method for those considered at ‘high risk’: a low-dose CT scan, which is the only lung cancer screening tool that reduces the risk of dying from lung cancer. In fact, if only half of those at high risk were screened, 15,000 lives could be saved.