Marifran Korb

Tag: pulmonary function tests

My Relationship with Cancer, Part 15

by on Jan.13, 2014, under Overcoming Cancer

“Do I need BOTH my adrenal glands?” I asked Dr. S., the pulmonologist. “Yes,” he asserted. “Two really are better than one. Together they affect every organ and every gland of the body. They produce hormones you need. Indirectly, adrenals are useful to the lungs.” When I told him that the urologist and I had parted ways over that point, he simply said I should find someone else to do the surgery.

Then he informed me that he would not approved of me for surgery just now anyway. He recommends eight weeks of pulmonary rehab first. “Your lungs are at high risk for surgery,” he asserted. Though he stated that damaged lungs do not improve and that lungs get worse as one ages, he believes that rehab could improve my lungs by 10 percent. Doesn’t that seem a contradiction? And why wait until I need surgery to improve my lungs by 10 percent?

Accustomed to doctors not making sense to me, I did not verbalize the incongruity, though I wish I had.
One thing I did say was: “The idea that damaged lungs cannot improve, and only get worse, is very depressing.” Dr. S. neither said a word, nor did he look at me. What I was struck with was the pure hopelessness of it all, as I was seeing his viewpoint. While not fully accepting it for myself, I remembered hearing this before.

Also, I was pointing to the fact that his job must be depressing since no patient with damaged lungs gets better. That seems like it would be most, if not all, his patients. All he can do is give medications to make life somewhat bearable, while he watches those patients get worse.

The belief that damaged lungs never improve was one I heard when I went to my first pulmonologist. It was in 1985 and I was already a busy wife, mother and youth director. A nurse-acquaintance in a seminar reached out and shared concern for me. My breathing was labored, though no different than what I was used to. Sally suggested a pulmonologist at the hospital where she worked. She may have saved my life. At least, Sally saved what was left of my lungs after 41 years of breathing challenges from birth.

That first pulmonologist, Doctor B, sent me for lung tests that showed I had only 16% of my lungs functioning. I’m not sure if it was the same exact PF Tests as is done now. The results were enough of a shock to the doctor that he said he could not help me. So he put his pulmonary nurse, Nancy, in charge of overseeing my care for whenever I needed something.

Five years later I had pulmonary tests again and results went up to 19%. The same pulmonologist was stunned. He informed me that when there is lung damage, lungs never improve. Besides having asthma and emphysema early in life, I had repeated bouts of pneumonia, bronchitis and bronchiectasis that created damaged lungs resembling Swiss cheese. Yet, my lungs expanded in some ways.

Recently, when I saw the present pulmonologist, he clarified the ‘gold standard’ that doctors now use to evaluate stages of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Explaining the stages, he said that there is no category for less than 15% of lung function. That is because the body cannot sustain lungs that function at 15% or less, he stated. No one ever told me that. Without knowing it, I was so close to the edge all my life before seeing that first pulmonologist. I knew that when I saw that first pulmonologist, I was no worse than I was when I grew up.

Also, on this latest visit, I had lung tests resulting in a score of 39% of capacity for a woman of my age. The norm is 80-100% for any age. At less than half the norm, I still live a normal life. Despite having less than half of my capacity, I live a normal life. Yes, I may have a more difficult time climbing up hills, walking up stairs, dancing in the rain, breathing frigid air, and facing heavy winds than others. And, I still do those things. Always, I manage to do what I want and need to do. I have no complaints.

It is astonishing, considering that my lungs are not supposed to improve and considering how much better my lungs are since 1985, despite the fact that I am now much older.

Everyday, I feel the difference. In the past, breathing was so difficult that I struggled all the time, even when I rested. While it took many years of gradual progress, I breathe well when resting now. Greater physical endurance is another way my lungs have progressed. So much for that theory about damaged lungs.

It appears I have overcome more than I realized.

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