Almost exactly 10 years ago, in January 2008, Linda Wortman, then 58, swung by her doctor’s office at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for her annual physical. Less than 48 hours later, she was undergoing major, lifesaving surgery.
“I’d had a strange cough for a while. Sometimes, I would even feel like I was choking on something without having had anything to eat or drink,” says the flight attendant of 35 years. “I’d seen a different doctor about it, got diagnosed with asthma, and was given an inhaler. This time, my doctor really listened to me when I brought up my symptoms and sent me in for a CT scan to see what was going on.”
That scan revealed a large tumor in one of Linda’s lungs. The diagnosis: non-small cell lung cancer.
“When they showed me the scan, I thought they had the wrong ones,” she recalls. “I’ve never smoked, so I didn’t understand how I could have lung cancer. As I was about to learn, anybody can get it, even if you’ve never had a single cigarette.”
Shocking fact: One in five Americans who die from lung cancer have never smoked. What’s worse, every five minutes, a woman in the U.S. is diagnosed with this disease. It’s apparently the leading cancer killer among women in this country. LUNG FORCE, a female-focused initiative from the American Lung Association, is encouraging people to raise awareness of lung cancer by wearing turquoise and donating to research and education funds at your local CVS Pharmacy during National Women’s Lung Health Week in May.
The next morning, Linda underwent surgery to remove almost her entire left lung. “The doctors felt that they had gotten all the cancer, so while I was going to have to be monitored with CT scans and blood work, I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation,” she says. That didn’t mean her recovery would be easy.
“I was in the worst pain I’ve ever been in—even worse than what I felt delivering my four children,” she says. “And I could barely breathe. I would pedal a bike during my physical rehabilitation and felt like I was going to die. But my husband kept telling me I could do it and my doctor said to just keep trying, so I did.”
Learning to Breathe Again
Not long after her surgery, Linda got a phone call from the oncology research department at the Mayo Clinic, asking if she wanted to participate in a paced breathing study for cancer survivors.
“They sent me a DVD that played breathing exercises and relaxing tones. Before I knew it, I was doing the paced breathing all the time,” she says. “I was at the point where I was gasping for every breath, so it helped to have a guide to follow. I would do it for hours and would even practice it in the middle of the night. When I was in pain, this meditation practice was the only thing that could help me feel better.”
Linda especially liked the visualization instructions that went along with the inhales and exhales. “The guide talked you through relaxing your mind and body and connecting with your spirit. You were instructed to envision breathing out the bad and in the good,” she says. “I would imagine breathing out the cancer and breathing in the healing.”
This wasn’t the first time Linda had tried meditation—when she was in college, she had given it a go—but this felt a lot deeper to her. “I couldn’t take a deep breath after the surgery. I had to pant and purse my lips, which I hated, but I was dealing with an 85 percent chance of dying,” she says. “Listening to the guided breathing became a way for me to relax, focus on regulating my body’s movements, and retrain my brain after the shock of lung cancer.”
And while Linda now breaths a lot more easily, she hasn’t given up the meditation practice. “I have the same guided meditation on my phone and listen to it when I cross country ski,” she says. “It gives me the perfect rhythm for my breaths.” It’s also crucial to her mental well-being. “I know that after lung cancer, each and every breath is priceless,” she says. “I have found that my lifeline is meditating one breath at a time.”
Related: A Simple Guided Breathing Meditation
Putting One Foot in Front of the Other
As someone who was incredibly active before her diagnosis, Linda most struggled with staying still during her recovery. So she didn’t.
“A few months after the surgery, my husband tied my cross country skis to my feet and told me all I had to do was try it,” she says. “It took me an hour to go 200 feet. But we went out every day and I realized being in nature and moving helped me with the pain.” Even Linda was surprised with what happened next. A few years after her surgery, she noticed a sign in a store for a road race benefitting a little girl with cancer.
“I didn’t even own a pair of running shoes, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl,” she says. “On the morning of the race, I woke up and told my husband I was going to go run the race for her.” Linda pulled on some ballet flats she had in her closet and made her way to the starting line. Not only did she finish the race, but also she ended up coming in second in her age group.
“A guy came up to me afterwards and said ‘I don’t know what you have in those shoes, but you flew by me!’” she says. Feeling inspired by the accomplishment, Linda decided she wanted to do something bigger—something that would show people lung cancer isn’t a death sentence.
“My husband and I ran a 5K in each state over the next two years—and each time I would send a picture back to my team at the Mayo Clinic who had worked so hard and stayed so dedicated. I wanted to show them that I wasn’t just alive, I was thriving!”
And she isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Two years ago, Linda had the chance to climb all 19,341 feet of Mt. Kilimanjaro—and she did it without supplemental oxygen. Her next goal: To run a 10K on every continent (she has completed three so far). While Linda wouldn’t wish a lung cancer diagnosis on anyone, her experience has profoundly changed her.
“You’re going through life and you love everything you’re doing and, then one day it all comes to an end,” she says. “You look at your family and kids and you’re on the brink of death. That changes you. From something bad comes something good, and my passion became saving lungs and saving lives.”