When Kelly Baker was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last year, she didn’t want to view the terminal illness as a death sentence.
As a 41-year-old single mother of a 4-year-old child, it is her son, Paxton, who drives Baker’s fight against the disease.
“I’m OK with me going. I’m not OK with him not having me,” Baker said.
More than a year has passed since Baker first received the diagnosis that she would probably not live another 10 years and might succumb to cancer much sooner.
Story continues below gallery
“You talk to different people, and you get different answers as to how long you can live,” she said. “You go to the internet, and it is even worse.”
The first indications of the disease began in 2014 when Baker started experiencing shortness of breath.
Doctors first thought she had either asthma or reflux disease, but medications for both of those illnesses failed to provide any relief.
In July 2015, Baker was hospitalized, and doctors discovered 3.5 liters of liquid in her lungs. Then the diagnosis of cancer came, and the race to treat it began.
“That’s the day my life changed forever,” Baker said. “I didn’t cry at that point, not until later. I think I was numb.”
The first few months after the diagnosis were a blur, she said, but she found a determination to continue to live her life to the fullest.
“She is a very, very strong person with a great, positive attitude, which, if it were me, would be the total opposite,” said Kelly’s mother, Debbie Baker.
Kelly lives at her parents’ home in Greenwood. Her mother helps take care of her son while she works.
“I’m living, not dying, and that is how I’m going to live the rest of my life no matter how long it is,” she said.
Her son isn’t old enough yet to understand what is going on.
“To know he may not have a mom at some point sooner or later is extremely difficult, that is the one thing that wears on me the most,” Baker said.
A year after her diagnosis she still has her hair, goes to work as an interior designer and does most of the activities she has always done.
For now, the chemotherapy intended to keep the cancer at bay has done its job.
But it isn’t a permanent solution.
“I know my chemotherapy will stop working at some point,” Baker said. “The cancer will find its way around it, my body becomes resistant to the chemotherapy. You have so many treatment options, and then you are out of options.”
Every several weeks, Baker has chemotherapy at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.
She receives an intravenous infusion and undergoes scans every six weeks to determine what effect the treatment is having on the cancer.
The scans are perhaps the most nerve-wracking part, she said.
Patients can stay on these treatments for as little as six months to more than two years, said Dr. Nasser Hanna, medical oncologist at IU Health and professor of medicine at IU School of Medicine.
If a patient’s body can’t tolerate the treatment any longer or if the cancer begins to resist it, they will move on to another treatment, which would be another form of chemotherapy, immunotherapy or perhaps a clinical trial, he said. Baker knows she has no guarantees any of them will work.
Baker said she has been grateful for her doctor’s care over the past year.
“He puts me at ease even though I have a terminal cancer,” she said.
Maintaining a positive attitude and having a good support group of friends and family is incredibly helpful for patients going through cancer treatments, Hanna said.
“Having family, friends, purpose and support plays a major role in one’s quality of life,” he said.
On Baker’s arm she wears a wristband emblazoned with the words hope, fight, cure.
“Hope is my favorite word,” Baker said. “I do have hope that I’m going to at least live with this.”
Unlike breast or prostate cancer, lung cancer brings with it many negative connotations. The disease is most often associated with smoking.
Whether she had been a smoker is the first question many people ask when they find out she had lung cancer, Baker said.
While she said she smoked some during college, she quit shortly after.
Despite the rate of lung cancer incidence and death, it gets less research funding than other cancers. The stigma of smoking certainly plays a role in the funding, she said.
“No one deserves to have lung cancer,” Baker said.
The strive to raise awareness about lung cancer and funds for research into potential cures is why Baker is taking part in a fundraiser walk and run later this month.
For Baker, it is a matter of survival, not just for herself but for others who have been diagnosed with lung cancer.
More research increases the likelihood of better treatments or even a cure, she said.
Free to Breathe, a lung cancer research and advocacy organization, is hosting a 5K walk/run and 1-mile walk fundraiser. Baker’s fundraising team, Kelly B Strong, has raised nearly $3,000 as of this week, the most of any team so far.
“I’m grateful for every day,” she said. “I want to live a good life. I want to live.”
Free to Breathe, a lung cancer research and advocacy organization, is hosting a 5K run/walk and 1-mile walk to raise funds and awareness for lung cancer treatment.
When: 9 a.m., Sept. 25
Where: Fort Harrison State Park, 6000 N. Post Road, Indianapolis
Register: In advance by mail or online. In person the day of the event.