Lung Cancer Survivor Helps Patients Through Their Cancer Journey

photo of Pam Trombero

Pam Trombero helps newly diagnosed lung and esophagus cancer patients find survivors to help mentor them during and after cancer treatment. She knows what she’s talking about. Trombero is herself a lung cancer survivor, as well as a cancer researcher, and an ex-smoker who successfully quit.

‘Out of nowhere’

Trombero was just beginning her career in cancer research in 2006 at age 49 when one day she felt a pain in her chest that wouldn’t go away. Her job was to manage the regulatory aspects of clinical research (informed consents, budgets, etc.) and she was having a busy day – too busy, she thought – to seek immediate medical help, even though she worked in a hospital. At the end of the day the pain was still there and a co-worker, a nurse, escorted her to the emergency room.

Doctors suspected a possible heart problem and ordered a chest x-ray, then called her back for a second one. A few days later, a doctor called her to say they had seen a mass on the upper left lobe of her lung. She had several more tests, including a CT scan, a PET scan and a biopsy of the mass. She was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, a type that accounts for only about 10% to 15% of all lung cancers. It tends to grow and spread quickly. But fortunately, Trombero’s cancer was found while it was still considered to be limited stage disease, which means it was confined to a relatively small area of her lung.

When she heard the diagnosis, Trombero says she immediately assumed she was going to die. Because of her work, she knew enough about her type of lung cancer to know how serious it was. She started getting her affairs in order. She says the hardest part was telling her father, who is now 90. “He accuses me of aging him,” she says. “We joke about it now.”

Trombero’s other thought on hearing her diagnosis, was to get busy. “I felt like somebody slapped me from out of nowhere,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can’t dwell on this. It’s going to be my demise, but I can take care of business. I’ll do whatever the doctors tell me to do.’”

In all, she was in treatment for about 7 months. She had chemotherapy, then surgery to remove part of her lung, then more chemotherapy. The drugs were strong and Trombero had many unpleasant side effects, including fatigue, hair loss, taste changes, and constipation. She received care and support from her father, her husband, her sister, and her niece. They called, visited, coaxed her to eat, and helped her take baths.

Someone to talk to

"I believe no one should be alone from diagnosis through treatment. I know how I felt panicked when I was diagnosed."

Pam Trombero

But what she really wanted was someone else to talk to who had survived lung cancer. She contacted the American Cancer Society and signed up for a Look Good Feel Better workshop. This free, community-based service helps women learn beauty techniques to help manage the appearance-related side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The program is a cooperative effort with the Personal Care Products Council Foundation and the Professional Beauty Association/National Cosmetology Association.

At the workshop, Trombero learned to wear a turban and was surprised that she actually had a lot of fun. But most of the survivors she met were breast cancer survivors, and she still longed to connect with people whose experiences were closer to hers.

Trombero says the cancer experience is different for survivors of cancers that are often linked with smoking, including lung and esophagus cancer. “We believe we deserved what we have because we smoked,” she said. “A lot of times it’s the first question anyone asks. I managed to find other lung survivors who were hiding out because they didn’t want to talk about the fact that they smoked. It’s how I started the LUNGS program.”

The program matches newly diagnosed lung and esophagus cancer patients with survivors. “I believe no one should be alone from diagnosis through treatment,” said Trombero. “I know how I felt panicked when I was diagnosed.”

Trombero quit smoking cold turkey when she was diagnosed, but she says it wasn’t easy because nicotine is so addictive. “About 3 days after quitting, the nicotine is gone from your body,” she said. “After that, it’s all in your mind. It’s just a matter of thinking in a different way, of thinking of what you value most in your life.” She works with many patients in the LUNGS program who continue to smoke. “They’re not going to stop until they’re ready,” she says. “It’s up to that individual.” And she also works with lung cancer patients who’ve never smoked. “As a survivor, I feel guilty sometimes, she said. “I don’t know how I beat it. You can’t answer that question.”

‘I’m not afraid’

These days Trombero still works with cancer, but now as a certified tumor registrar. She has some shortness of breath as a result of her treatment, but otherwise feels good. “You learn to live with it,” she says. She has a scan once a year to check that there’s still no cancer. She had a scare last May – doctors thought they saw something suspicious. But when she was re-checked a few months later, it had disappeared.

“I live each day like it’s my last,” said Trombero. “For me, it’s one-plus belly laugh a day. It gets on my nerves when people say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ In my mind, I’m packing my bags and going to be with people who have left this world already. I’m not afraid of that. I hate to leave people, but when my chapter ends, that’s it. You have to go with the flow.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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