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A visit to the doctor for back pain leads to lung cancer diagnosis for one local hairdresser

Posted at 12:02 PM, Nov 07, 2017

Going to the doctor for a back problem, and coming out with a cancer diagnosis. 

Patsy Allison was shocked to hear she had lung cancer back in June of 2017. She said only went to the doctor because she stands on her feet a lot working as a hairdresser, and her back was bothering her.

When she went to the doctor looking for treatment, they wanted her to get an MRI, which is how they found her cancer. One of her doctors, Dr. Gupta with MedStar Union Memorial, says it is normal to not have symptoms indicating you have lung cancer, 

"Most patients do not have symptoms, and therein lies the challenge in making the diagnosis.  Unfortunately, too many patients are diagnosed after the cancer has spread.  A few patients are diagnosed when they get X-rays or CT scans done for totally unrelated reasons.  I have even had patients who had a car accident and went to the ER and got some CT scans, which end up showing a lung mass."

The 70-year-old says she quit smoking 33 years ago, but just because she quit decades ago, doesn't mean she is immune to lung cancer. 

"The risk of lung cancer from smoking never goes away," explained Dr. Gupta. 

Allison says she doesn't attribute her cancer to smoking, but her job instead. She's been a hairdresser for the last 55 years, and has done all sorts of cuts and styles, including hair-straightening keratin treatments. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has found that some keratin treatments contain formaldehyde, a potential carcinogen. Allison is not letting that hold her back or affect her day to day life. Allison had her tumor removed in an operation, and today she is standing tall and cutting hair, though she does avoid keratin treatments.

“I never would have dreamed I would have lung cancer,” said Allison. Though it was tough for her at first, she said she is glad they caught it when they did, and she has been trying to keep a positive attitude since. 

Her doctor says that her positive energy has made a big difference during her treatment. 

"She was initially extremely nervous and scared, as would be expected.  After we met for the first time and discussed the option of surgery, she started to focus her energies more on the challenges of getting through the operation.  Instead of having many unanswered questions, she was able to envision a path forward.  It made a huge difference, as she really did remarkably well with her operation and recovery," said Dr. Gupta. 

Overall, Dr. Gupta says the best thing to do is to keep a positive attitude and see the right people, 

"It is important to have an experienced team looking after your new diagnosis.  It is important to consider all the options – including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and even newer treatments such as immunotherapy.  It is also important to keep as positive an outlook as you can, I have seen this make huge differences in patients’ lives."

And Allison says her experience at MedStar Health, and especially with Dr. Gupta, has been better than expected. She said when she was diagnosed she felt empathy and support from Dr. Gupta, something she said she is not used to getting from doctors. 

Now, Allison is going through chemo, working, and is very passionate about spreading awareness to others. She said she suggests that everyone get a chest scan to check for lung cancer because catching it early was what saved her. 

To learn more about lung cancer call during MedStar Cancer Network House Calls on Monday, November 13 and Wednesday, November 15 from 4:30 pm - 6:30 pm to answer your health questions.