“No one would believe me when I suspected I had lung cancer”
Learn about one patient’s journey toward getting an accurate diagnosis—and why it’s crucial to always advocate for your health.
Nichelle Stigger heard the doctor’s words—“It’s no big deal! You don’t have to worry!”—but couldn’t shake her suspicion that something was terribly wrong.
She’d been feeling sick for months and was finally at the emergency room (ER) undergoing tests to figure out what might be causing her symptoms. When one of the scans showed a pulmonary nodule on her left lung, nobody was alarmed; these growths are common and oftentimes noncancerous. Except Stigger was concerned.
“I immediately knew I had cancer,” says Stigger. “It was instinctual.”
Yet it would take many more appointments, pleading with a pulmonologist for more scans and six more months until Stigger’s gut feeling was confirmed: She was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.
Sadly, this experience is all too common for African-Americans dealing with lung cancer, who are less likely to receive early diagnosis or targeted treatments and have a lower overall survival rate than those of other ethnicities diagnosed with the disease.
Stories like Stigger’s are why Johnson & Johnson is relentlessly working to eradicate racial and social injustice as a public health threat by eliminating health inequities for people of color. The company is also leading the way in advancing innovations to detect, treat and hopefully cure cancer one day.
Luckily, Stigger’s outcome was a good one. Healthy now, she’s on a mission to talk about her cancer journey and the life-saving potential of being your own health advocate. Here, she shares her story.
Nichelle: “It was 2017, and I was at my husband’s birthday dinner. I’d been feeling off for a few months—more tired than usual and a little weak. I knew something wasn’t right, but my symptoms were vague enough to keep moving with life. At the time, my son was 3 years old, and I was also working full-time and going to graduate school at night. It’s easy to push through feeling kind of sick when there’s so much on your plate.
Yet, in the middle of that dinner, I asked my husband to take me to the emergency room. I was dizzy and felt faint, and I had an immense feeling of malaise. At the ER, the doctors did a battery of blood tests, all of which looked normal. Then they did a chest X-ray and found a small pulmonary nodule in my left lung. And while everyone around me told me it was no big deal, I froze.
I started crying, which confused my husband. He looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong? The doctors just told you everything is OK.’ Many people have benign lung nodules, but I had a gut feeling that mine was cancer.
The fight for a diagnosis
The ER doctors suggested I follow up with a pulmonologist to assess the nodule they found. At that appointment, the doctor also didn’t seem concerned, telling me that because I was just 32 years old, the plan would be to take a wait-and-see approach, monitoring the nodule with scans to make sure it didn’t grow.
I looked that pulmonologist in the eyes and said, ‘No. I want a PET scan.’
When the PET scan didn’t show signs of cancer, I made an appointment for a follow-up scan in six months, which is standard procedure to check for growth.
During those six months waiting for my next scan, I was caring for my young son, finishing my master’s degree in education and spending late nights researching lung cancer. I still wasn’t feeling 100%. It seemed like time was ticking, and I couldn’t convince anyone what I knew in my heart: I had lung cancer.
Sure enough, after my six-month follow-up scan, I got a call from the pulmonologist telling me the nodule had grown, which is a big indicator that it could be cancer. I was so angry. To go from hearing an enthusiastic ‘It’s nothing!’ to a somber ‘You need surgery immediately’ is disorienting.
Three days later I met with a surgeon who had 30 years of experience performing the type of lung biopsy I needed. The plan was to do laparoscopic surgery to remove the mass in my left lower lung and test it for cancer. If it was cancer, my surgeon told me he’d remove the lower lobe of my left lung and any lymph nodes in the area where the cancer may have spread. During the procedure, the mass turned out to be larger than they thought based on my scans. And it wasn’t a solid mass; it resembled something more like jelly, which my surgeon told me was unusual.
When I got out of the surgery, my doctor told me he hadn’t seen anything like it in 30 years. He knew it was cancer, but he had to send the mass to the Cleveland Clinic to determine what type of cancer it was.
It seemed like time was ticking, and I couldn’t convince anyone what I knew in my heart: I had lung cancer.
A week later, he called me with the news: I had non-small cell lung cancer. Luckily, it was a slow-growing variety that originated in my lung—not my breasts or intestines, which are common points of origin for this type of lung cancer.
After spending the next two weeks testing every part of my body to see if the cancer had spread, my second surgery was scheduled. This surgery would remove the lower lobe of my left lung and some surrounding lymph nodes. When I woke up, my surgeon told me he’d removed all the cancer, and I wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation.
From worried patient to passionate advocate
Once the cancer was out of my body, I was relieved. But like most cancer survivors will tell you, there’s always a feeling of underlying anxiety. I always have moments where I’m wondering: Is this really over? Could the cancer be anywhere else in my body? Every cough, every ache, every pain—all of it makes me think. I’ve even stubbed my toe and thought, Did I just erupt something in my body? Now when I go to the doctor, I make sure they’re looking in every nook and cranny of my body for cancer.
Most people who are diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older, and lung cancer screenings aren’t recommended until age 50.
What I’ve learned about lung cancer is that it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have any of the known risk factors for the disease, like a history of smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke or exposure to other cancer-causing agents like asbestos or radon. I never smoked. And I was young when I was diagnosed. Most people who are diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older, and lung cancer screenings aren’t recommended until age 50. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in this country. In fact, the average five-year survival rate is only 18.6%—which is nearly five times lower than the odds you’re given if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer or prostate cancer.
I also learned that people of color are less likely to receive an early diagnosis or targeted treatments, and we have a lower overall survival rate than others who are diagnosed with the disease. There is an urgent need to address these disparities that affect underserved communities. One of the ways I’m trying to do that is to share my story and talk about how important it is to listen to your intuition if you fear something is wrong. I’m on the board of directors of a lung cancer nonprofit called LUNGevity. I also work with health organizations to advocate for people of color throughout their cancer journeys. I learned firsthand how crucial it is to follow up with doctors until you get the care you need.
How to take control of your health
Throughout my lung cancer journey, I’ve learned a few things to make sure I’m getting the proper health care I need:
- First, it’s important to learn as much as you can about your health. Read what you can from trusted sources, ask your doctor questions about health concerns you have and stay on top of your healthcare appointments. This will help you advocate for yourself and trust that you are a reliable narrator of your story.
- It’s also important to realize that health disparities exist. We are all biased in some way, and this leads to biases that create those health disparities. As a patient, it’s important to know these biases exist and then own your health. Listen to your instincts and keep looking until you find a healthcare team that takes your concerns seriously, listens to you and believes you.
- Finally, it’s crucial to let your physicians know who you are as a person. When I first met with my surgeon, I really wanted him to see me. I noticed a picture in his office of his daughter and her child. I said, ‘I’d love for you to think of me as your daughter. I have a husband and a young son. I’m going to school right now to be a teacher.’ And from that point on, we had a connection. I think this is something all of us can do.
Most importantly, I want everyone to realize that it’s possible to get lung cancer even if you don’t fit the criteria. It doesn’t matter what age you are or if you’ve ever smoked or not. And early detection is everything.”