There was no warning. On that March 2021 day, one moment, Surgery Physician Assistant Elissa Doty was pulling up patient files, and the next, she collapsed on the ground. Her heart stopped. Three times.
Had this happened at any point in the last 30 minutes when she had driven 20 miles from WakeMed North Hospital to the Cary hospital, Doty wouldn’t have been here today to tell her story. Had it happened in the parking lot before she walked into the building or in the hallway on her way to the surgical lounge, she likely would not have made it.
“I went down, boom,” she said, smacking her hand on the table. “I feel blessed. I truly feel that God was with me that day. I just feel that it was more than serendipity.”
The rapid response team and the attention of several MDs and PAs in the room gave her CPR and rushed her to the emergency department, where they gave her a CT scan. They found a broken neck and several tumors throughout her body, including her brain and lungs.
“One of the plastic surgeons rounded with me as I was discharging this patient [at WakeMed North],” she recalled. “My doctor told him about me, and he said, ‘I rounded with her; she was fine!’”
Doty spent 11 days in the hospital, several of which she was completely unconscious. Her family flew in from around the world. Her youngest son had been teaching English in Vietnam when he got the news. When she woke up, the doctor showed her the scan photos.
“Dumbfounded, you’re dumb, you can’t speak,” she said. “To see your name sitting next to these awful pictures, it was just shocking.”
The doctors told Doty that she had stage 4 lung cancer with metastases in her brain, spine and hip. This news was unthinkable. As a PA at WakeMed, she had a very active lifestyle, walking three to five miles most days throughout the hospital. She ate well, enjoyed hiking and never smoked. She had no symptoms leading up to her incident or diagnosis.
“I always took the stairs at the hospital. I cooked my own food, had no diagnoses, or took medication other than vitamin D and calcium,” she said. “I would say I thought I was healthy; it’s all very bizarre.”
For several days after her diagnosis, she was speechless. Having seen that her brain, hip, spine and ribs had several lesions and swelling, her doctor wanted her to begin treatment as soon as possible. Her body forced her to slow down, and the chemo and radiation added to the lethargy. She began chemo treatment toward the end of her 11-day stay.
“I think the chemo and the radiation, the large amount I had totally wiped me out,” she said. “It’s a different kind of exhaustion.”
Due to the rare mutations of cancer Doty has, she gets tumor receptor targeted therapy every two weeks and is on an FDA-approved drug. Cancer cells eventually build resistance to these targeted therapies, which leads to disease progression and tumor recurrence. The hope is that there will be another one to begin when one ends, making increased research vital. During a visit to Duke Raleigh Hospital for her treatment, she saw an advertisement for Lung Cancer Initiative’s LUNGe Forward walk event.
“I was so excited I took a picture with my phone,” she said. “I had been working the last three years in breast cancer. I was shocked when I started trying to find a survivor community. There really isn’t much for lung cancer. When I saw this sitting on the counter at Duke, I thought I gotta do this; these are my people.”
Lung cancer, while devastating, has a surprisingly low amount of resources compared to other cancers. Doty’s experience at WakeMed was primarily with the Breast Health Services, so she was well acquainted with the amount of support for breast cancer. However, when she looked for the same community within the lung cancer diagnosis, there just wasn’t much out there. A common misconception is that only cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. The truth is that the only prerequisite for lung cancer is having lungs.
“There is a stigma when it comes to lung cancer,” she said. “Growing up smoking was pervasive, everywhere, at work, in restaurants, on planes, in hospitals, and was marketed aggressively on TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. Many people smoked and it is so addictive. Nobody deserves this; you shouldn’t blame the patient.”
Physical activity has been a major part of Doty’s journey. Her son, who had come across the world after her diagnosis, started walking with her daily. It had been a dream of her’s to walk the Camino Frances when she retired in August of 2022. The Camino Frances is a contemplative walk of approximately 500 miles primarily in Spain. Her son encouraged her to pursue this dream still.
“My son was walking with me around the neighborhood, and now he’s in Europe on a three-month visa,” she said. “Now my husband has taken over and he has been pushing me.”
Due to the nature of her infusion treatment, Doty can only be away for two weeks before she needs tumor receptor-targeted therapy again. While the entire walk takes over a month to complete, she will be walking a 100-kilometer portion of the Camino in 10 days. The same son who walked with her around her neighborhood will meet her in Madrid to complete the walk alongside her.
“I had been thinking about this for years, but I never had the time to take off,” she said. “I had already decided this was something I was interested in. Not being able to do it in one trip stings, but if I do this well, I can go back and do a different section and complete it over time.”
She will return to North Carolina on September 21 and will complete her walk at the Triangle LUNGe Forward, exactly 18 months after her first incident.
“On the 24th, it will be, to the day, a year and a half,” she said. “Not bad, considering I wasn’t supposed to wake up.”
Doty’s goal is to raise $10,000 by the time of the Triangle LUNGe Forward. Her team is named Elissa’s Lions. Lung Cancer Initiative hosts these events to raise awareness and funds for vital treatment and research. The support of a community is invaluable, especially with such an isolating condition.
“This diagnosis really is life-changing. All the support you can get is important,” she said. “People don’t know how to talk about it with you. They don’t know what to say. It is good for people to reach out and find support. This was really wonderful for me to find.”