It was an otherwise normal Saturday night for Amy Neary: She was on her way to a hockey game with her husband, their three kids, and a friend. Neary had had a minor headache earlier in the day, but a few Advil cleared that right up.
Then, all of a sudden as they were driving, Neary couldn’t breathe.
“I was just overcome all at once with shortness of breath, tingling hands and dizziness. I wasn’t sure if I was going to pass out or throw up,” Neary said.
Everyone rushed her to the hospital, where she was immediately checked for signs of a heart attack or stroke. Luckily, Neary had not suffered from either — but the radiologist discovered an opacity on her left lung. The radiologist told her that she should probably have it checked out.
“That was a total blessing in disguise,” Neary said, even though she wouldn’t realize it till months later when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. “I never would have known I had anything on my own.”
A search for the problem — then a diagnosis
The radiologist’s initial discovery marked the beginning of a months-long search for the problem on Neary’s lung. She underwent many tests — several rounds of bloodwork, a pulmonary function test, walk tests, breath tests, CAT scans, heart monitoring, a PET scan, and more — before heading to Boston for a second opinion.
In October of 2019, almost nine months after that first hospital visit, she underwent a biopsy. It finally confirmed that Neary had non-small cell lung cancer.
“I have to say that my first reaction was relief, because we finally knew the problem and we could have a plan of attack,” Neary recalls.
Neary was scheduled for surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital on October 30th, 2019 — her 20th wedding anniversary — to remove the portion of her lung with the nodule. When the surgeon went in to remove the piece of Neary’s lung, the surgeon had to stop. Video during surgery revealed that Neary had lesions on her chest wall alongside the nodule in her lung.
“That’s when I was referred to Dana-Farber for treatment,” Neary says.
A new chapter at Dana-Farber
Neary came under the care of Pasi Jänne, MD, PhD, director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber, and his team. Together, they agreed on a plan to treat Neay’s stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer, and she began four rounds of chemotherapy in December 2019.
Since the completion of those initial four rounds, Neary has been returning to Dana-Farber every month for maintenance treatments to keep the cancer at bay. It’s been successful: the initial nodule has shrunk, and Neary’s cancer is otherwise under control.
“It kind of shifts your perspective on many things,” Neary says. “It’s about learning to embrace stability and being stable.”
Neary can’t say enough about the quality of care and the quality of the people she has come into contact with at Dana-Farber.
“I’m very grateful that I live so close to world-class care, and my oncologist is the best of the best,” Neary said. “His staff, nurses, and fellows are phenomenal too.”
“Amy is learning that life can be okay despite treatment,” Jänne says. “We’re treating all of Amy, not just her cancer, and I think that’s helped her as well.”
A strong support system
In addition to her care team, Neary has found great solace in services provided by the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living at Dana-Farber. She gets acupuncture each time she goes in for treatment, and has recently finished a mind-body resilience program that helps patients learn how to manage stress.
She also stresses how important Dana-Farber’s Adult Social Work Program has been in helping her through her diagnosis. Neary didn’t realize the impact that a social worker can have in caring for the entire person with cancer, as well as their families.
“Alongside my oncologist, Suzanne Welsh Lobacki, LICSW, and Michelle C. Jacobo, PhD, have been instrumental in my life this past year. I honestly cannot imagine going through this without them,” Neary added.
Throughout Neary’s cancer journey thus far, she has also been blown away by the support she has from her family and friends.
“My kids are terrific. They are the light of my life,” Neary says. “We’ve been very honest and open with them from day one. I continue to be so touched by their thoughtfulness, their compassion, and their resilience.”
Writing has also offered Neary some relief after her diagnosis. She is a private person and tends to keep her life to herself, but she started writing email updates to her friends and family as her treatment progressed. As time passed, those emails became more than just communication about her cancer care.
“They were ways for me to get out what I was feeling and thinking,” Neary says. “It’s certainly been a time of personal growth.”
Neary continues to take advantage of each new day, and is confident in the care she is receiving at Dana-Farber. With her husband and kids by her side, she remains hopeful for the future.
“Cancer certainly has a way of just turning everything upside down and challenging you to look at everything in your life,” Neary said. “None of us know how much time we have here, and every single day is a gift.”