In 1999, Jodi Page was a young woman enjoying a life of newfound independence in Minneapolis. She had recently moved to the city from the small town in rural Minnesota where she grew up, and was working on a new life-new friends, new activities, and a new job. When test results suggested she had a malignant tumor on her left lung, she had so little experience with cancer she hardly knew what the words meant. Even her doctors were skeptical.
Today, almost three years later, Jodi has successfully fought mesothelioma. Though she lost one of her lungs to the disease, she is about to celebrate her 30th birthday skydiving for the first time.
In October of 1999 Jodi began to suffer from what she thought were normal symptoms of a cold: fever chills, cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing. She went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was sent home with the drug Z-pack, which made her feel better temporarily, but a week later she returned to the emergency room with the same symptoms, along with chest pains. Again the diagnosis was pneumonia. Tests revealed a mass on the upper part of her left lung and her doctor sent her to a surgeon, who performed a CT scan. The surgeon was unable to make a definitive diagnosis from what the CT scan revealed, and recommended more tests. In December of 1999, when the results of a needle biopsy came back indicating mesothelioma, even her doctors were skeptical because of Jodi's age, gender and good health. They sent her lab work on to the University of Minnesota facility for confirmation.
After re-evaluating the tests, her doctors told her that depending on the charts used, she had between stage three and four epithelial mesothelioma, and that it had spread to the abdomen. Because of its advancement, they did not believe that treatment with surgery or radiation would help her, and would only make her time left to live one of unnecessary suffering. It's difficult to imagine what it would feel like to go from youthful exploration of a new life to facing such a dismal outcome at only 26 years of age. Because Jodi was young and otherwise healthy, they also decided to wait before attempting chemotherapy. The oncologist told her that if she wished to obtain a second opinion, he would be happy to make a referral. Both Jodi and her father were thinking the same thing in that moment: the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.
After obtaining approval from her insurance company to be treated at Mayo, Jodi came under the care of oncologist Dr. Randolph Marks. He ordered a new set of tests and came back with a somewhat different diagnosis: Jodi had stage two epithelial mesothelioma, and it had not in fact spread to her abdomen. And he issued a very different prognosis. Because of her age and otherwise good health, Dr. Marks considered her an excellent candidate for surgery, to be followed up by chemotherapy and radiation. In February of 2000 Jodi spoke with thoracic surgeon Dr. Claude Deschamps.
During the consultation, Dr. Deschamps asked Jodi directly, "This is going to be a very tough fight. Are you absolutely committed to seeing it all the way through?" He explained that enduring surgery, recovery and living with only one lung were going to present enormous challenges, and he wanted to be sure she was committed to waging a battle with the disease herself afterward.
"It was the first time someone put it back on me," Jodi remembers. "Up until then, because of my age I guess, it was just sort of assumed that I would." Jodi went home to consider her decision, and soon called the clinic back to schedule an appointment for surgery. She had decided she was going to fight.
The thoracotomy lasted four hours. Dr. Deschamps performed a radical extrapleural pneumonectomy with on-block excision of the pericardium and diaphragm. First, Dr. Deschamps conducted a laparoscopic inspection of the diaphragm on Jodi's left side to make sure the disease hadn't spread there. He went on to remove her entire left lung, all the lining of the lung on the left side, more than 17 lymph nodes, and the left half of her diaphragm, which he replaced with a Gore-tex patch.
Jodi's recovery was arduous. At first, even taking ten steps down the hospital hall left her winded and wheezing. Pain management and an unrelated car accident that put her in a back brace were challenges she faced later. Jodi moved back home to the town where her parents lived.
Jodi's mother, a home-maker, and father, who had an office job, helped to rally the support of family and their community of church members. Once, her entire extended family spent a day of prayer and fasting on Jodi's behalf.
Still recovering from her car accident, chemotherapy was put off until July of 2000. Jodi received only one dose of a Gemzar/Cisplatin combo, which caused severe dehydration and nausea. Her reaction--she had to be hospitalized for a week--was so strong that Dr. Marks decided not to continue with chemotherapy. He explained that if he or any of his own family members had had such a strong negative response, he wouldn't continue with chemotherapy there either. He chose instead to focus on radiation and getting Jodi's decreased weight back to normal.
Jodi received radiation treatment twice a day for 3 weeks. She would get up early in the morning for her first treatment, then six hours later go back to receive another. Radiation also made her very weak, and again at the end of the treatment, dehydration overcame her and she received her last dose while in the hospital.
Following recovery from surgery and radiation, Jodi visited Mayo for checkups every three months, then every six. Tests consistently came back indicating she was free of cancer. In 2001 she received a scare when Dr. Marks noticed a lump on the right side of her neck. He wanted to run tests immediately, but Jodi had already paid for reservations for a mini vacation she had planned. Dr. Marks said to go and enjoy her vacation, the tests could be put off until her return. But after her long experience under Dr. Marks' care, Jodi could tell by his demeanor that he was worried about her. She tried to have fun and put thoughts of the cancer's return out of her mind, but in moments while she was alone driving, or had a spare moment, her worry returned: "What if the cancer has come back?"
When she returned from her vacation, Dr. Marks examined her. "Does that hurt?" he asked, poking and prodding the lump. "It hurts when you poke at it," she responded, "but otherwise it's just fine." Jodi and Dr. Marks were both very relieved when he realized that the lump was actually her esophagus. Her doctors had anticipated that her remaining lung would increase in size to compensate for the loss of the other lung. Because she was so young, the development of her left lung had shifted the position of other organs. Her esophagus was now located on the right side of her neck, which explained another mystery Jodi had experienced: some difficulty swallowing. The only result of the shift in her esophagus is that she now must be careful to chew her food thoroughly.
Both Jodi and her doctors are very optimistic about her future. In February of 2003, Jodi celebrated three years since her surgery with no recurrence of mesothelioma. Her doctors have informed her that if cancer is to return, it usually does so within the first year or so. After five years with no sign of malignancy, a patient is considered to be in remission.
Aside from knowing that she won't be running any marathons or scaling any high-altitude peaks, Jodi now enjoys a relatively normal quality of life. Jodi is now working as an Americorps volunteer. She is rebuilding the network of friends that diminished somewhat during her treatment and recovery period. She is now taking skydiving lessons, and on July of 2003, on her 30th birthday, she plans to complete her first dive. Her father wanted her to seek her doctor's approval before making the dive, which she did. But skydiving is something she's always longed to do, and she doesn't see any reason why her experience with mesothelioma should stop her. "I'm just trying to live the most normal life that I can," Jodi says, "And I'm beginning to enjoy it more and more."
After her recovery, Jody joined a lung cancer support group in Minneapolis (there was no mesothelioma-specific support group) and became involved in lung cancer and mesothelioma advocacy. Jodi welcomes patients and family members who desire to join her in mesothelioma advocacy to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is the letter Jodi wrote on completing her first sky dive.
On July 15th, 2003, my 30th birthday, I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was able to fulfill a goal I have had for many years. I drove 60 plus miles to Hutchinson Minnesota and went skydiving. What an experience that was for me!
Three and a half years ago I was told I would be dead in 3 years. It feels good to say I beat the odds. I went alone to make the dive for several reasons. The most important one was to prove to myself that I could do it. It was a perfect day, blue skies, a light wind, and big white puffy clouds. I'll admit that I was nervous and excited all at the same time. Only once did I think, "What in the world am I doing?" I was able to arrive early and watch someone who was doing a Tandem jump land, so I was able to see what it was going to be like and how I would be hooked to the Instructor. After going to the bathroom, I watched a video and they signed my life away.
Then I meet Eric who was the Instructor I would be connected to on my Tandem jump. We went to the tiny plane that I would be jumping out of and went over what would happen right before the jump and what to do during the jump. I put on my jump suit and then met Sam who would be shooting the video of my jump. YES I got a video of my jump! I wanted to prove to everyone that I did what I said I was going to do. I was able to say a few parting words into the camera and then it was time to do what I had come to do.
It took maybe 20 minutes to get to the right altitude so I sat back and enjoyed the ride. I could have stayed in the plane forever; I enjoy flying now more than ever. The next thing I know the door of the airplane was opening and I thought, "What am I doing?" That thought passed and the next thing I know I'm stepping onto the ledge and then falling. I can't explain the feeling I had as I was free falling. Words can't express what I felt. Before I knew it the chute was opening and I was able to look at the beautiful world in away I have never done before. It was breath-taking and I didn't want it to end.
Before I knew it we were coming in for our landing. I was told it was a perfect landing, and it felt that way. I said a few more words into the camera and headed towards the hangar. I was still grinning as I waited for them to edit the video and add music. I said my goodbyes to Eric and Sam and gave them a nice tip. It took me 2 hours to get home during rush hour traffic, but I didn't care. I was on such a natural high that it could have taken me longer to get home and I wouldn't have noticed. I am so glad I went and I want to do it again. This time around, though, I want to take the classes and go solo. Maybe in a couple of years I will be able to do just that. This is definitely the best Birthday I have had so far and it will always be a memorable one.