Lung cancer survivor Nichelle Stigger shares how advocating for herself led to her initial diagnosis.
As told to Britt Julious
I call it a journey because there’s so many wonderful things that have happened.
People talk about that third eye. And I have that third eye because the angel of death came to visit me. In the end, I was able to look at my life through a different lens.
Getting cancer was my biggest fear. When I was younger, like in my 20s, I had palpitations. I would go to the emergency room and they could never find anything. But I know my body. One day, it was my husband’s birthday. I just didn’t feel well. I felt like I was going to pass out. We go to the ER and they do an X-ray. A doctor said, “You have a mass in your lungs. And other than that, that’s all we see.” I just remember being very, very scared and I just knew it was cancer.
Everyone said [I was] overreacting. I followed up with a pulmonologist and she said, “You’re young. It’s probably nothing. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to wait six months and we’ll follow back up.” I looked at her and I was like, “Are you crazy? ” And she’s like, “Well protocol says…” and I said, “I’m not a protocol. I’m a human.”
I waited six months and it was probably the most depressing six months of my life. Eventually, the pulmonologist called me a couple times. I didn’t think anything of it. She said, “You need to get into surgery right away.” And I said, “Are you serious? You made me wait and worry for six months.” I ended up getting in contact with a surgeon. He said it didn’t look like anything [he’s] ever seen. It didn’t have any cancer surrounding it.
It’s unfortunate that we have to humanize ourselves so people see us.
After he gave his spiel, I pulled up a picture of Parker and said, “This is my son Parker. He’s four. He has a severe bleeding disorder. This is my master’s degree that I just paid $100,000 for. And I’m looking for a job right now to teach and I’m someone of use that gives back to society.” It’s unfortunate that we have to humanize ourselves so people see us.
They go in, they open me up. They were only able to get the mass, get clear margins, and then sew me back up. They were supposed to be able to test it right there. But because it was so rare, they couldn’t. I was in the hospital for four days and on that fifth day, he called me. I had cancer. It was a very rare type, a slow-growing cancer, which we were all so thankful for. I put myself in a protective bubble. And I just knew I was fighting for my son, no matter what.
By that time, I was involved with a group called LUNGevity. I am on their board now. I have been advocating for lung cancer and our women of color, specifically, who are suffering with cancer. Everyone should have the care that they need, especially while going through cancer.
A month later, I was scheduled to remove my lower lobe. I was fortunate I did not have to have radiation or chemo. I’m a better person now that I’ve had cancer because I have that ability to see things, like when they say go outside and smell the flowers, like I can really do that. As time goes by, that goes away. The worldly things, as my grandmother will say, will come in and distract me from knowing my journey and my purpose. My journey is the fight to know that no matter how young you are, this can happen to you, but also to trust your body, and to get all the information you can and empower yourself to take care of yourself.