“Stress is more deadly than cancer,” Naomi Berkowitz said with a smile. As she shared her incredible story with us, she seemed happy, relaxed, and quietly self-assured. Naomi is a singer, dancer, gemologist, cosmetologist, and lung cancer survivor – and her optimism is contagious.
Naomi’s story began in 2015, when a persistent cough led her to see her primary care physician – who spotted a shadow on a chest X-ray and referred her to a pulmonologist. The pulmonologist immediately ordered a biopsy, but the treatment team working on Naomi’s case was reluctant to perform the procedure before running the standard battery of tests, likely because the area of concern was dangerously close to her heart.
After the usual protocol of bronchoscopy and Positron Emission Tomography (PET)/Computed Tomography (CT) scans, the doctor advised Naomi that the test results were inconclusive, as he feared they would be. A section of her upper left lung appeared to have collapsed for reasons yet to be discovered, and would need surgical intervention. On the day she met with her surgeon, Naomi was confronted with another surprise. In explaining the extent of the surgery he said, “We’ll need to remove as much of the malignancy as we can.” This is how Naomi first learned she was facing cancer.
Since a biopsy had not yet been performed – and he needed to know what type of cancer he was dealing with – Naomi’s surgeon called his preferred radiologist to request a biopsy. Upon reviewing the CT scan, the radiologist quickly phoned to say that a successful biopsy was possible, but it would be tricky. Agreeing to accept the risks, Naomi and her treatment team moved forward with a biopsy and immunohistochemistry (IHC) testing, which revealed non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Four weeks into her treatment, Naomi did what many strong, independent cancer patients do: she went online to educate herself about her cancer – which she now knew was stage IIIB. “Clicking the ‘prognosis’ link was a bad idea in my case,” Naomi told us. “At 18 months after treatment, the survival rate for late stage NSCLC was 15%. And that wasn’t even the end of it. When I looked at the stats for mediastinal involvement, the picture was truly bleak. Only 1% of patients with this type of cancer survive 18 months or longer.”
Amazingly, this grim picture only steeled Naomi’s resolve. “I never once thought lung cancer would kill me,” Naomi confessed. “I knew it was going to be a very rough road, but it simply didn’t occur to me that I would die. I realize now this attitude helped me survive, against the most daunting odds.”
It seems that Naomi is right. According to her doctors, she responded remarkably well to her somewhat aggressive treatment – which consisted of surgery, six weeks of concurrent radiation and chemotherapy, and one additional dose of chemotherapy (three were planned, but Naomi responded quickly enough to stop after one). While she still has nodules on her lungs, Naomi’s scans are good – showing no changes since she completed her therapy in November of 2016.
Perhaps the most difficult part of her journey was the realization that one side effect – a frozen vocal chord – would mean that Naomi would likely have to give up singing. However, even this deep personal loss has not dampened her spirits. Her goal today is to reach people in new ways – by sharing her story.
Of course it helped that I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.
Naomi’s song is now her personal story of courage and hope. And her message is clear: people can survive cancer, and find new reasons to love life in a deeper way. “I know it sounds strange,” Naomi said, “but cancer was a gift. It restored my faith in humanity. Friends and strangers rallied around me like family. I just opened myself to every positive intention, and every opportunity to heal…and it worked! I believe this is why I’m still here today.”
Naomi also has a message for healthcare professionals – and those who are working to develop better tests and treatments for cancer. “Even if you don’t see your hard work pay off during the course of your career, remember that everything you do brings science one step closer to the next breakthrough. I didn’t know so many of you were focused on this work, and it’s so encouraging to me. Please don’t stop pressing forward.”
What’s next for Naomi? She hopes to be an advocate for lung cancer patients. She encourages all of us to care for ourselves. Eat right, exercise. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to push for the answers you need. Don’t surrender to disease, but surrender to your care and the good intentions of the people around you. Ask your doctor to explain any side effects you might expect (more than once, if necessary) so you’re not surprised or worried if you experience them. Let go of anything in your life that holds you back or weighs you down – life is too short. And most of all, never give up!