Lung Cancer Survivor Relies on Sense of Humor

Written By:Stacy Simon
photo of Carole Clarke

Carole Clarke, 77, has always counted on her sense of humor to get her through the tough times. And that includes facing down stage 3A non-small cell lung cancer. She once got a laugh from 16 patients in a chemotherapy waiting room by walking in Charlie Chaplin style, with an invisible top hat and cane.

“If I can get, ‘this is funny’ from somebody taking chemo, that’s really something,” says Clarke.

Determined to Find Help

Thinking back on it, Clarke says her cancer began affecting her health in May 2008. “That’s when my body changed,” she says.

An athletic person, Clarke regularly took 5-mile walks, but that May, found she could walk no more than 2. Over time, her weight dropped to 99 lbs. She developed a cough and had trouble breathing. Alarmingly, she began to drool while in the middle of a conversation. And thrush (a fungal infection in the mouth) broke out on her tongue.

She made an appointment to see a doctor in Bullhead City, Nevada, a short drive from her home in Laughlin. But Clarke’s doctor did not suspect cancer and refused to order a chest x-ray. Her insurance company sided with the doctor. Clarke considered moving back to Venice, Florida, where she had previously lived and knew a doctor she trusted. But that would mean walking away from the equity in 2 condominiums she owned. After 8 months of trying to get a chest x-ray, Clarke consulted an attorney who gave her some frank advice.

“He said, ‘You can stay here and die and hang onto all your stuff, or if you have confidence in the doctor in Florida you can move there and get treated.’”

Clarke admits she was afraid. But she’s made of strong stuff, and is used to standing up for herself. A former engineer in the telecommunications industry, she was the first woman in her company to be promoted to what was considered a man’s job in the early 1960s. After retiring in 1980, she continued to move around the country, working as a contract engineer. She decided to make the move.

Once Clarke got to Venice, Florida, things happened quickly. The doctor listened to her cough, pounded on her back, and ordered a chest x-ray. That led to a CAT scan and a lung cancer diagnosis. It was May 2010. Clarke believes it should have been caught 2 years earlier.

Getting Better

Clarke went through a treatment of radiation and chemotherapy, then after a break, more chemotherapy, then more radiation. Her tumor shrank more than 60%. She tolerated the treatments well, with few side effects other than fatigue and a sore throat.

Her hair started to fall out, and she found a hairdresser who shaved cancer patients’ heads for free. She wore wigs and hats and participated in an American Cancer Society Look Good…Feel Better workshop.

“It was fun. They used me as the model. I like anything that will help me or other’s emotions,” says Clarke.

She joined a yoga class she heard about from fellow participants in Look Good…Feel Better. And she created her own support group of people she met in the workshop, yoga class, medical treatments and a cancer seminar she attended.

“I talk to everyone wherever I go and we always laugh,” she says.

'The best tool is humor'

"The best tool, no matter how sick you are, is humor and not hiding the fact you have cancer."

Carole Clarke

These days, Clarke’s hair has grown back and she plans to donate her wigs and wig stands to Look Good…Feel Better. Her doctor advised her to move somewhere with no coastal area, no smog and no desert to help her breathing. She chose San Jose, California because her 3 grown grandsons live there. She stays active, walking 2 ½ miles a day and doing gentle yoga 3 times a week.

She has a CT scan every 4 months. The last one showed no growth of her tumor.

Clarke says, “My cancer is happy and won’t do anything until it’s ticked off. If I can keep my cancer happy, I’m happy.”

Clarke likes to write to help keep her mind off her cancer. One of her favorite subjects is an 11-year-old cat named Abbey. When Clarke was diagnosed, she set out to adopt the oldest female cat she could find who was scheduled to be put down. At first afraid and wary, Abbey eventually learned to trust Clarke and they became comfortable together. She had to find a new home for Abbey when she moved to San Jose.

“That little girl took my mind off my problems and focused me on her well-being. I miss her every day.”

She says she refuses to be anything other than happy.

“I had to be this way in order to make it through all that I went through in my lifetime. I’m the only one who can pull myself out of this,” says Clarke. “You can’t do it unless you have positive thinking. Even when everything’s going bad, I make light of it.

“The best tool, no matter how sick you are, is humor and not hiding the fact you have cancer. With lung cancer a lot of people will say you deserved it because you smoked. I smoked until 1997. You can’t be embarrassed. Cancer is no different from any other disease. It’s just a disease. Work on keeping your body healthy and go do things. Or adopt cats.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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