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Unstoppable in the Fight Against Lung Cancer

by UPMC

\In January 2016, Tina Barber of Howard was dealing with a lingering cough from what she thought was a typical winter cold. When the cough wouldn’t go away and she started having shortness of breath, she went to see her primary care physician, Donna Mullarkey, MD.

“After a chest x-ray, she determined I had pneumonia,” says Tina. “I was put on antibiotics and scheduled a follow-up visit to make sure the antibiotics cleared my lungs.” At the follow-up visit, they did a second chest x-ray and Dr. Mullarkey noticed something unusual.

“Dr. Mullarkey called me late one evening,” remembers Tina. “She let me know the x-ray showed a spot on my lungs that needed to be looked at immediately. She quickly got me in to see a lung specialist.

An Unexpected Diagnosis

Within days, Kevin Kist, DO, ordered a PET/CT scan and discovered Tina had lung cancer. “When he said I had cancer, I was shocked, but I didn’t want fear to enter my mind,” says Tina.

“I was never really sick. The pneumonia is what revealed cancer.” Dr. Kist performed a biopsy to determine the type and stage of cancer. Then, reality set in for Tina. She told her kids she had cancer.

Although her lung cancer was caught early, Tina had a difficult time with the diagnosis. “I was lucky they found it early, but it was still tough,” says Tina. “I have a family history of cancer, my grandfather died of mesothelioma, and I had smoked for 30 years—it was bound to happen.”

A Team of Doctors Working Together

The team at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Williamsport came together and created a treatment plan for Tina. She was scheduled for surgery right away. Mark Osevala, DO, cardiothoracic surgeon at UPMC Williamsport, performed surgery to remove the upper lobe of Tina’s lung and the quartersized tumor.

“The team was amazing. I knew I was in good hands,” says Tina. “From the very beginning, Dr. Mullarkey answered all of my questions and worked with every single specialist to make sure I was getting the best care. They treated me as a person. They didn’t just treat my cancer.”

After surgery, Tina began the process of healing. Although they removed part of her lung, she felt good after her recovery. She quickly returned to some of her favorite activities—gardening and walking around her farm in Centre County. “People were shocked I had cancer,” says Tina.

“I didn’t look like someone who had cancer. For the next few years, Tina returned to UPMC Williamsport for PET/CT scans and blood work to make sure her cancer didn’t return. In March 2019, she got the bad news—a spot they had been monitoring on her lungs had begun to grow. Her cancer had returned.

Fighting Cancer a Second Time

TinaHer team of cancer doctors came together once again to develop a treatment plan. Because of her previous surgery, a second surgery locally wasn’t an option. Kenneth Glaser, MD, radiation oncologist, suggested stereotactic radiation therapy to treat the small tumor.

“It was amazing how they worked together,” says Tina. “They allowed me to be part of the team to make the decisions I felt were best for me.”

Stereotactic radiation therapy uses very high doses of radiation delivered very precisely to the tumor, allowing the radiation to shrink the tumor and only the tumor. The Edge Varian system technology combines radiation with imaging technology to map the location and dimensions of the tumor. Stereotactic radiation therapy preserves healthy lung tissue, lowering the risk of side effects.

“I had five radiation treatments; that was all,” says Tina. “I never got any radiation sickness, felt any pain, and never felt overly tired.”

Although Tina had quit smoking about a year before her cancer diagnosis, she recommends that anyone who was a previous smoker get a low-dose CT lung cancer screening.

“The reason I am healthy today is my cancer was caught early. I am the perfect example of if you catch it early, your life won’t dramatically change.”

Tina continues to have follow-up appointments to make sure she is cancer-free, but she enjoys life as she did before her cancer diagnosis.

“I am a cancer survivor,” says Tina. “Cancer does not dictate my life.”