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Patient Stories

Breathing Easy Again
By Healthy Life 2008 Winter

For Beverly resident Cynthia McPherson, 49, the coming of winter guaranteed not only slush and snow but also her yearly battle with pneumonia and breathing trouble.

For more than 10 years she battled constant wheezing, horrible coughs, bronchitis and upper respiratory infections. “It got so that I knew when it crossed from a cold into pneumonia and I’d go to my doctor or the emergency room for X-rays and medication,” says McPherson. And though she was treated with antibiotics, her trouble never really went away. “I was always wheezing even in the summer; I thought I had asthma.”

What McPherson didn’t know was that a cancerous lesion was slowly growing on her right bronchi, one of the main airways in her lungs. As the growth got bigger, it started to block her airway, causing the repeat infections and wheezing.

Cynthia McPherson tells her story in this video
NSMC Cancer Care

During a particularly bad cold in the winter of 2005, McPherson went to the emergency room at Beverly Hospital to have a chest X-ray, which she knew would diagnose her latest bout with pneumonia. Upon reviewing her X-ray, the doctor treating her also ordered a CT scan of her chest and found a mass in her bronchi. Assuming it might be a mucus plug, he referred her for a bronchoscopy, a test where a lung specialist threads a very small tube with a tiny camera down into the airways to examine the lungs. McPherson was about to get the surprise of her life.

“When the pulmonologist told me I had a cancerous tumor in my lung, I couldn’t believe it. I’m not a smoker. Then he said because of the location of the tumor I would need my lung removed,” she explains. However, he did offer her a ray of hope. “He said if there was anyone who could try to save my lung, it was NSMC’s Dr. Dean Donahue.”

Dr. Donahue, a thoracic surgeon who practices at both Massachusetts General Hospital and NSMC, soon explained the complexities of the procedure to McPherson. Drawing on his specialized expertise as a lung transplant surgeon, Donahue thought he might be able to use an intricate technique to cut out the section with the tumor and reattach the remaining airway and lung. “I was still so stunned by the diagnosis that the complexity of the procedure didn’t even hit me,” said McPherson. “I even asked Dr. Donahue if I could have the procedure on a Friday, so I could recover over the weekend and go back to work the next week,” laughs McPherson.

Once the reality set in, McPherson, a single mother of four children, started to worry about her family. Her oldest son, now a third-generation Beverly firefighter, was about to be deployed to Iraq with the Marines. She didn’t want him or her three younger daughters to worry about her. “Though I was initially frightened, Dr. Donahue and his nurse Julie Garrity, R.N., and the whole office staff reassured me at every turn. Dr. Donahue even told me to call him 24/7 if I or my family had any questions. I felt I was part of their family,” she says.

After the eight-hour surgery and three days at NSMC Salem Hospital, McPherson went home to recover. The tumor was encapsulated and hadn’t spread to any other sections of her lung, so she was able to keep her lung and avoid chemotherapy or radiation to kill the cancer. Now breathing easy, McPherson is walking up to six miles a week without difficulty. “When I told friends about my cancer, they immediately expected that I was going to go to one of the big hospitals in Boston for treatment,” says McPherson. “But Dr. Donahue is MGH and he brought Boston to me. I’m alive and breathing because of it,” says McPherson.