Taylor Bell faced a dilemma Wednesday morning as she pondered that night's big basketball game.
“I root for Carolina but Duke saved my life,” she said.
Two weeks after her 21st birthday, she was told she had a 3-centimer mass in her lung.
“I thought it was a death sentence for me,” she said.
It wasn't. She had the cancerous mass removed at Duke University Medical Center and she's been cancer-free for more than four years.
But Bell is exceptional: Only 16 percent of lung cancer patients live five years past diagnosis.
Bell wants you to know two things about lung cancer.
“When I tell people I had lung cancer, the first question is, ‘Did you smoke?' ” she said.
She thinks that's unfair.
“You don't ask people with breast cancer, ‘How did you get breast cancer?' ”
Bell played varsity soccer for four years at New Hanover. When she graduated in 2005, she expected to play soccer at East Carolina University.
And she did during her freshman year. She began to feel a tingling and numbness in her toes. Then she couldn't pass her fitness test, a series of sprints she'd previously done without difficulty.
Eventually she left the team.
During Christmas break her sophomore year, she contracted pneumonia, then got sick again a few weeks later. The student health center took a chest X-ray, which she recently brought to the StarNews for a photo session. But no one realized it was lung cancer until the following fall.
“I was shocked and scared,” she said. Her grandmother had died of lung cancer, as had a great-grandfather and great-uncle.
Bambi MacRae, a lung cancer survivor whom I wrote about last year, helped connect Bell with Duke thoracic surgeon Thomas D'Amico.
“Keyhole surgery” pulled much of her left lung out through a small incision in November 2007. Since then, twice-yearly scans have proven negative for cancer.
Bell, who graduated in 2010 with a B.S. in political science, has become an activist and advocate.
She has appeared with D'Amico before medical providers, and traveled to Washington to lobby on behalf of lung cancer survivors.
Lung cancer takes more lives than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined, according to the National Lung Cancer Partnership.
But with the low survival rate, Bell said, “there's not a lot of people to talk about the story.”
She said there's a stigma attached to lung cancer. People tend to assume that those who suffer from it are somehow to blame.
Bell was a Division 1 college athlete. She'd never smoked and hadn't been exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis.
But even if she had smoked, she said, “Does that make you care less? No one deserves lung cancer.”
Bell works in Greenville as community outreach coordinator with the Carolina Well survivorship program (CarolinaWell.org), a Chapel Hill-based organization that supports cancer survivors.
Her local counterpart is LaSonia Roberts-Melvin, who says New Hanover Regional Medical Center's Zimmer Cancer Center offers a program to help survivors transition to life after cancer.
To find out more, contact Roberts-Melvin at 342-3403 or LaSonia.Roberts-Melvin@nhrmc.org.
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