In 2010, Craig Blower had such a bad case of bronchitis that his doctor put him on steroids. Craig’s airways cleared up in a month or two, and he didn’t give it any more thought. Then, in late 2012, his throat began whistling slightly when he woke up. But Craig, who was 59 years old at the time, thought it was just part of getting older. “I basically ignored it,” he recalls.
The whistle soon turned into a wheeze, and Craig mentioned it to his doctor during a visit for a rotator cuff injury. Craig also mentioned mild acid reflux and, thinking this was causing the wheeze, his doctor suggested an antacid. That didn’t help, though. Craig’s wheezing got worse and was joined by a nagging cough. This was only a few days before his annual family trip to Hawaii, so he went to urgent care, where he got an antibiotic and an inhaler.
When he got back home to San Diego early in 2013, Craig still didn’t feel well. Thinking he had bronchitis again, his doctor put him on a heavy-duty steroid. This time, however, his symptoms failed to clear up.
Next came the chest X-ray that turned Craig’s life upside down. “Fifteen minutes after I got home, the doctor called and asked me to come back in for a CT [computed tomography] scan,” he says. “Then I got a call asking me to bring my wife in, too—and that pretty much tells the tale.”
A biopsy confirmed that Craig, a nonsmoker, had non-small cell lung cancer. But he also got some good news along with this bad news: his tumor had the EGFR mutation. “I said, ‘That’s a good thing?’,” Craig says. “I didn’t know anything about cancer.” He quickly learned that EGFR is targeted by Tarceva and that taking this pill would spare him the downsides of conventional IV (intravenous) chemotherapy.
Then he got more bad news. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) showed his cancer had spread to his brain, so he had 10 days of brain radiation. While that was successful, lung radiation wasn’t, so he went straight to Tarceva.
Craig got even more bad news in late 2013, when he had such severe hip pain that he needed a cane. His doctor thought it was arthritis, but a PET (positron emission tomography) scan showed tumors in his hip and sacrum, leading to more radiation. “The tumors cleared up, and I started playing softball again,” says Craig, who has a game every Sunday with friends.
After that, all was well until he’d been on Tarceva for a little over a year. “It worked really well for a while, but then tumors popped up again in my lungs,” he says, explaining that this is typical. His oncologist referred him to a lung cancer specialist at UC San Diego, and she helped get him into a clinical trial that began in the summer of 2014.
While the experimental drug shrank his tumors dramatically at first, today it is less effective. “Things are starting to come back slowly, a millimeter here and a millimeter there,” Craig says. So now he’s researching other options. “I’m trying to push further out until the next wonder drug comes along,” Craig says, mentioning immunotherapy as a possibility.
How has he made it this far? Craig credits his family and many friends and his positive attitude. “I wasn’t Mr. Positive before, but after my diagnosis I knew I had to be,” he says. “You have to keep it light—if you roll up into a ball in the corner, it drives people away.”
In that spirit, Craig nicknamed his tumors “Fuzzy” and started a blog called Get Fuzzy. His blog is full of humor. An early post is called: “To benign or not to benign: no longer the question.”
The post just before his brain MRI includes: “Tomorrow morning I have an MRI of my head to ensure nothing is going on up there as well. I tried to tell them to save their money as I know nothing ever goes on up there. But they wouldn’t listen.”
And the post after his brain radiation includes: “While I graduated from brain radiation school magna cum zappa last week, I flunked out of lung radiation school today and have been kicked off campus. So much for my second diploma. Starting tomorrow I’ll just be a druggie.”
Just as importantly, Craig does his own research and advocates for himself. “Question your doctors, do not accept everything as gospel,” he says. “I’ve been misdiagnosed twice, with bronchitis at the beginning and then with hip arthritis—nobody knows your body better than you.” He also ignores statistics. “They’re outdated and they lump everyone together,” he says. “But everybody’s different.”
Craig’s blog has more than 100 posts and he ends each one with “Day at a time.” This outlook has helped him beat the odds. Since first hearing his diagnosis, Craig and his wife of 36 years have had more days together than anyone might have anticipated.
Update: We are deeply saddened to report that Craig passed away on March 16, 2016. It is a privilege to continue to share his story and keep his memory alive.