No matter who you are or what profession you’re in, cancer doesn’t discriminate. But as a provider, it can often be even more challenging to shift from caregiver to patient. Allyson Boodram, MD, a non-smoking, healthy young physician at Atrium Health, reflects on her transition to a patient fighting stage 4 lung cancer at Levine Cancer Institute.

News, Your Health | 25 days ago

From young, healthy doctor to lung cancer patient

No matter who you are or what profession you’re in, cancer doesn’t discriminate. But as a provider, it can often be even more challenging to shift from caregiver to patient. Allyson Boodram, MD, a non-smoking, healthy young physician at Atrium Health Levine Children's, reflects on her transition to a patient fighting stage 4 lung cancer at Levine Cancer Institute.

“When you’re a physician, you never expect to have a terminal illness,” says Allyson Boodram, MD, medical director of Carolinas HealthCare System Union’s pediatric hospitalist program. But this past summer, she was faced with that very reality when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

Stage 4 cancer is the most advanced stage there is, and it indicates that the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. For Dr. Boodram, the tumor in her chest had spread from her lungs to her bones and her lymph nodes by the time of her diagnosis.

Not too long ago, a diagnosis like this would have guaranteed a drastic cut in life expectancy. But thanks to the treatment that Dr. Boodram has received from her team of expert caretakers at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute, Dr. Boodram’s scans have revealed that the mass in her chest is dissolving and the cancer nodules that had spread to other areas of her body are nearly gone.

An unexpected diagnosis

As a non-smoking, healthy 40-year-old physician, Dr. Boodram’s diagnosis came as a complete surprise. She worked out regularly, ate well and maintained an all-around healthy lifestyle.

Overall, as many as 20 percent of people who die from lung cancer in the United States every year have never smoked. That still means that most lung cancers are tobacco-related. “The number 1 prevention is not to smoke,” says Dr. Boodram’s primary oncologist, Kathryn Mileham, MD, FACP, the Chief of the Section of Thoracic Medical Oncology at LCI. “But quite honestly, the greatest risk factor for getting lung cancer is just having lungs.”

It wasn’t until June that Dr. Boodram began to experience symptoms. “I had this coughing spell one day and started having pain in my internal oblique area,” she says. “I thought I had pulled a muscle from my workout class, but never thought it was serious.” Eventually, the pain built up to a point where Dr. Boodram called her sister thinking she had broken a rib. From there, she went to a nearby Urgent Care to run some tests before she was referred to the emergency department.

“When you give challenging news for a living as a provider – you just know that body language. So I knew something was wrong when the ED doctor walked in,” says Dr. Boodram. “I knew in my mind that this would be really bad – but no way I thought she was going to say I had cancer.”

On the receiving end of care

Not only is lung cancer the second most common cancer for both men and women, but it’s also the leading cause of cancer death in men and women. According to Dr. Mileham, more people die of lung cancer than of breast, prostate, colon, rectal and pancreas cancers combined.

But thanks to Dr. Boodram’s daily routine of taking an oral pill that was approved just a few years ago by the FDA, Dr. Boodram is showing near-miraculous signs of improvement. A mere two months after her initial diagnosis, her scans have already revealed that the large mass in her chest is dissolving and the other cancer nodules that had spread throughout her body are nearly gone.

The pill, called osimertinib, is a precision medicine medication that was first tested as part of a clinical trial offered at Levine Cancer Institute before it was approved by the FDA. Precision medicine is an approach to patient care that allows physicians to select treatments that are personalized for patients based on a genetic understanding of the disease. The drug targets a mutation within the tumor and is intended specifically for eligible lung cancer patients.  “Based on the most recent information, osimertinib is a first treatment option in patients whose tumors have a specific mutation. It has demonstrated a 54 percent reduction in the risk of progression or death,” says Dr. Mileham. “It is the standard of care.”

“Being a clinician who delivers care every day, and then being on the receiving end – it was very different,” says Dr. Boodram. “But what I’ve learned in this short period of time is that my experience at LCI has been amazing – Dr. Mileham is probably the most important person in my life right now.”

Today, Dr. Boodram is working to reclaim a sense of normalcy in her life along with the companionship of her cancer-fighting dog, Jess Stone. Jess was first diagnosed with mast cell cancer and was given six to eight months to live. Eight years later, she’s still here and is now trained as a therapy dog for Atrium Health, bringing smiles to patients who may be facing similar situations.

“There’s a huge part of me that believes that going through this with her has given me hope that you can beat the odds when dealt something like this,” says Dr. Boodram.