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There’s a sense of determination and courage in Beth-Ann Young’s voice as she talks about the journey she is undertaking.
Last Friday, the 39-year-old left her home in Deer Lake to travel to Vienna, Austria, where she’s undergoing six weeks of immunotherapy treatment.
Young is battling Stage 4 lung cancer.
She was diagnosed April 28 after a chest X-ray showed a 3.5- by two-centimetre spot on one of her lungs.
The X-ray had been ordered in conjunction with one on her stomach as her doctor tried to determine the cause of stomach issues she experienced a few months prior.
Other than the stomach pain, she had no symptoms.
“I was feeling the healthiest I’d ever been. My healthiest weight. I was working a lot, exercising.”
A CT scan confirmed she had lung cancer and it had already spread to lymph nodes near her lung, and to adrenal glands and lymph nodes nearby those glands.
“You can’t tell me at 39 to just go home and die. That’s not how it works.” — Beth-Ann Young
She had a biopsy quickly thereafter and was started on chemotherapy as she waited about six weeks for the pathology report.
It was hoped the chemotherapy would combat some of the cancer, but it didn’t.
Once the pathology came back, Young learned she qualified for immunotherapy, a new, more targeted form of treatment.
“Which is that what we were praying for," she said.
She qualified for treatment based on her age, gender and the fact she never smoked. Genetic testing showed she qualified in the 90-99th percentile.
“A lot of high hopes there.”
After two rounds of chemotherapy, and before starting on the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, a scan showed the cancer had spread to parts of the bone in her left hip. Young had to undergo emergency surgery to have a rod placed in her leg from her hip to her knee.
One week later, she flew to St. John’s to undergo five weeks of radiation.
“I could barely walk to the plane,” she said.
A scan after radiation and five rounds of immunotherapy showed affected areas had been reduced, except for a couple of spots in her belly and a new spot on her hip.
“In our eyes it seemed well,” she said.
But the oncologist had different news.
Young was told the immunotherapy was not working. Only the spots that received radiation were reduced, and doctors could not radiate her whole body.
“He pretty much told me at 39 years old to go home and take palliative-care measures to live out the rest of my life in a palliative state.”
Devastated, she quietly cried for the entire appointment. Her husband, Mike Young, was not so quiet, but the doctor said there was nothing else to offer.
It took them a couple of days to regroup. The couple then made contact with a doctor they knew in Texas whom they consulted after her diagnosis.
He suggested other options, including the clinic in Austria which offered various immunotherapies and more in-depth testing on a patient’s pathology.
They called the clinic and were able to talk with a doctor there via Skype.
“It’s hard to find a doctor with a lot of knowledge and a lot of heart, too,” she said.
She believes this doctor has both, but knows there are no promises.
The treatment is expensive at $100,000, not including flights or accommodations, and Young has about half the funds she needs.
A substitute teacher, she hasn’t worked since her diagnosis and her husband has had to take time away from a new business he just started last December.
Family and friends are helping and there is some money left from fundraisers held in Deer Lake, Springdale, where she grew up, and Halifax where she lived for 12 years. There’s also a Go Fund Me account where people can donate.
“We’ll get there. I have a little bit of time to pay it off. We’ll get there,” she said.
Her husband, brother and sister-in-law and a friend will split up the time to be with her in Austria.
“Am I nervous? Yes,” she said.
But there’s also excitement.
“I’m going somewhere that could potentially save my life or prolong my life, put me in remission,” she said
“You can’t tell me at 39 to just go home and die. That’s not how it works.”
And she has three very good reasons to fight as hard as she can — her children, Noah, 12, Olivia, 10, and Maggie, 7.
They know she’s sick and has to go away again, and they don’t like it. They don’t know where Austria is or how long it takes to get there.
“This time there is a lot of unknowns. Those unknowns are scary to them.”
It’s when she talks about her children her voice falters.
“Definitely the hardest part is seeing the sadness in my kids’ eyes. Seeing their worry and their fear,” she said, as she starts to cry.
“And then having to hold back every bit of fear that’s inside me so that they don’t feel it any harder.”
She has to be a mom and mommies never stop.
“I have not missed a morning getting them ready, packing their lunches. I’m there when they get off school, taking them to hockey. I take them to birthday parties.”
They don’t understand why she’s sick or why cancer has to impact their lives. At the same time, she said they are so good.
“They are my biggest reason to get up every morning. My biggest reason to put my shoes on and to go to Corner Brook for the third time yet this week and fight.
“They give me strength.”
As does the circle of friends and family encompassing her. When they ask what they can do to help, she tells them to make her kids happy, to occupy them.
“I can fight.”
Young is sharing her story because it might help someone else in her position to know they have other options.
“It’s not any doctor’s fault here in Newfoundland. It’s really not. It’s the system of what’s available,” she said.
“I often wonder how many patients would have left that oncology room thinking this was it,” she said.
“Go seek other opinions.”
There are other options outside of Newfoundland and Labrador, she said, from experimental drugs to clinics like the one she’s travelled to receive treatment. Options need to be suggested by doctors here.
“It’s crazy how I’m 39 and I know my parent’s generation often didn’t question a doctor. But when it comes to your life and saving your life you have to ask those questions. You have to ask what else is there for me to do, where can I go.”