In 2015, Tabitha Paccione developed a cough that just never went away. As an elementary school teacher, she assumed it was just a bug she picked up from her students. When it persisted, she visited a doctor and in 2016 she learned something shocking: She had stage 4 lung cancer. Paccione, then 35, wondered how this was possible.
“I’m young. I’ve never smoked. I’m active. I don’t have a history of cancer,” Paccione, from Cypress, California, told TODAY. “There are moments in your life where you are just overcome with so much fear and heartbreak you kind of black out. I remember sitting in that doctor’s office after he said the words ‘lung cancer’ and I just completed blanked.”
While she felt scared, worried and sad, Paccione decided to embrace life and enjoy time with her family.
“Time is short,” she said. “This lung cancer journey has just helped us to realize how important it is just to spend every moment together and make whatever time we have the best time.”
She hopes her story shows the importance of funding lung cancer research.
“No one deserves lung cancer — whether or not you’ve ever smoked a day in your life,” she said. “I was told I was only going to be here for three to six months. And this October I celebrated being here for four years and I’m still living my life.”
Cough that never went away
When the cough that started in 2015 didn’t go away, Paccione visited the doctor who examined her and did a chest X-ray. The doctor believed Paccione had bronchitis and gave her some cough medicine and antibiotics.
“It should have run its course,” she said. “I was a busy mom of a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old … I didn’t really have the time.”
While she seemed to get better at first, the cough returned and it wouldn’t go away. The doctor thought maybe Paccione had allergies and gave her an inhaler and steroids. Still, the cough didn’t improve. It actually worsened.
“Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night choking,” she said. “One time, I was driving with my kids and I could not stop choking and coughing so much to the point where I kind of threw up … It was pretty scary.”
Again, Paccione visited the doctor and was diagnosed with acid reflux. But she noticed that her energy waned, too. During the summer she taught half-days at a summer school and would return home and take a nap.
“I would wake up eight hours later more exhausted than I was when I went to bed,” she said. “That wasn’t how you’re supposed to feel.”
Then she started experiencing back pain and struggled to exercise. Doctors believed she had pulled a muscle. But she knew it was something serious.
“The most telling sign for me was I remember I was walking up like four stairs at the movie theater on a date night with my husband and I had to grab his arm and said, ‘I need a second’ because I could not catch my breath,” she said. “I know something’s wrong with my body. I just ran a 10K like a month ago. How am I tired after walking up four stairs?”
Paccione pushed her doctors to find an answer. She finally went to a neck surgeon because of a nodule she had on her neck, which might have been thyroid cancer. The doctor had her undergo a scan to make sure she was ready for surgery to remove the nodule, which ended up being benign.
“That’s when he discovered a 5 centimeter mass in my left lung,” she said. “It was blindsiding. I remember sitting in that doctor’s office thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t even know what to do next.’”
Living with stage 4 cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women (excluding skin cancer). The average age at diagnosis is 70, and about 80% of lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking. Common symptoms of lung cancer include:
- A cough that won't go away
- Coughing up blood
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling weak or fatigued
The more Paccione learned about her lung cancer, the worse it sounded. Doctors at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center revealed that she had ALK-positive lung cancer, a non-small cell cancer that has metastasized to her bones. Her hip was broken because cancer had weakened it and her back hurt because she had cancer in her vertebra. Her brain had lesions on it and it had also spread to her lymph nodes.
“I had, like, 29 lesions in my brain, but I didn't have any headaches. So it was really scary to know that the cancer had progressed so far,” she said. “But yet, if it wasn't for the coughing fits I would never have known.”
She had one infusion of chemotherapy before her test results revealed that an oral chemotherapy treatment would help her. She will always need to receive treatment to keep the cancer from spreading more. It’s been working so well that she’s been able to return to teaching.
“Those are my students, they are like my family. The kids are just so wonderful to be around,” Paccione said. “Getting back to work with them, it was a huge part of my healing.”
Her family also started taking epic road trips so they can create memories together.
“We do a little bit of sightseeing. We hiked ... We have so much fun,” she said. “It's really ... enjoying just whatever we can do together.”
Paccione and her husband, Anthony, have always been open with their children, Dylan, 16, and Brooklyn, 12, about her prognosis. Brooklyn struggled and at first used to call her mom several times a day to make sure she was OK. But she’s resilient and last year she organized a cancer awareness week at her school. Having the support of her family makes it easier for Paccione.
“I’m truly living with lung cancer. Lung cancer isn’t a death sentence. There’s so much hope,” she said. “At some point, and I’m hoping it is a long ways away, my cancer is going to become resistant to my treatment. So for there to be more options for me to be here, there needs to be more research.”