‘I am very encouraged right now’ – WTOP’s Neal Augenstein on lung cancer diagnosis

When Neal Augenstein shared his cancer diagnosis on Twitter Sunday night, the well wishes and prayers began flowing in almost immediately, and the longtime WTOP reporter said Tuesday that “I can’t even verbalize how heartwarming that is.”

Augenstein told the DMV Download that he’s gotten emails from “newsmakers who I’ve covered over the years — I won’t embarrass them by naming them, but they’re people who I’ve disagreed with, people I’ve agreed with,” as well as messages from listeners all over the area.

Some are just expressing their support; some are sharing stories of “cancer that they’ve been succeeding with, or a family member who was diagnosed 10 years ago and is now 85 years old and going strong,” he said.

“I mean, I’m finding that to be incredibly empowering.”

‘I’ll keep an eye on that’

Sunday’s announcement was the end of a process that began with a persistent dry cough in September, Augenstein said. When it lasted long enough to go to his doctor, the first thought was allergies.

Even so, he said, he thought of his father, a longtime smoker who quit in his 40s, and died of lung cancer at 85. Augenstein has never smoked, but even so, “something in the back of my mind made me think that — you know, I’ll keep an eye on that.”

It wasn’t allergies. A course of antibiotics didn’t help either. Next up was an X-ray, which showed a small mass in his left lung. A CAT scan confirmed that, as well as the presence of “some other little junk in my lungs.”

Still, he said, it could have been pneumonia or some other kind of infection. “The goal was to rule out cancer,” he said, but “it was getting more clear that I might have something that we should be taking a look at.”

He went back and forth between thinking it was just an infection that just needed the right antibiotic and going “the total other way — thinking that cancer was ravaging my entire body, and I was doomed.”

‘I lived through hearing that sentence’

Augenstein checked into Inova Fairfax Hospital for a bronchoscopy. On Monday, Nov. 21, they put him under, then put a narrow tube down his windpipe to take a bit of the mass and whatever else was in his lungs.

That evening, he got the news.

“I’ve always thought to myself, ‘I don’t think I could take it if a doctor said to me, ‘You have cancer.’ I thought that my head would explode if somebody told me that.”

It didn’t.

“Knowing it was much better than the worry,” Augenstein said. By 10 p.m. Monday evening,  the oncologist with Inova Schar Cancer Institute “told me, very calmly and very reassuringly, that there was going to be a meeting next Monday, and I was going to be meeting with him and my radiologist and surgeon. So they had the whole team already mobilized and working.”

“In the end, you know, I lived through hearing that sentence. And soon after that, I was, and I am, working on a plan — looking to see what I can do to get rid of this cough and to live a long, healthy life.”

The numbers

“I’m a newbie at this,” Augenstein said at one point. Most people are.

Adenocarcinoma is a slow-growing form of lung cancer, and in Augenstein’s case it has spread to a lymph node in his chest. He said he’s at Stage 3a.

Lung cancer is the leading form of fatal cancer in the U.S. Earlier this month, the American Lung Association announced that the five-year survival rate for lung cancer has made “remarkable progress.” The bad news: It’s progressed from 21% to 25%. It’s even lower for people of color, the report found.

That’s generally because people don’t get tested until it’s late in the process, the lung association said.

“Somebody can have lung cancer in them for a while before they start coughing,” Augenstein said, and if it’s the cough that brings you to the doctor, “that can indicate that there has been some spread.”

There are 14.5 million Americans who fall under the category of being recommended for lung cancer screenings, and some research says up to 60,000 people a year could be saved if everyone got screened once they were in the recommended category.

Augenstein said he’s not dwelling on the data.

“I don’t think I’m going to be paying too much attention to the numbers; I think I’m going to be paying attention to feeling good, to following my doctor’s orders, to making informed judgments when I can.”

‘Let’s keep going’

Augenstein said he’ll be starting chemotherapy and radiation before the end of the year, and he’ll continue to work.

He still coughs fairly regularly – “I do cough less when I’m not talking” – and now talks by taking a deep breath, going as long as he can, and taking another breath. Most of his reporting involves recording, so if his coughing interrupts a sentence, he can start again at the break.

Acid reflux is probably in his future, due to the treatments, but “my voice box is okay, so my dulcet tones should not be affected by this whole treatment.” He added, “WTOP has been wonderful [as far as] ‘Do what you want to do, what you need to do, what you prefer; let us know what we can do to help.’ And I love my job.”

He’s 63, 17 years younger than his father when he was diagnosed, and says he’s in good health – “besides having cancer” – and looking forward.

“Right now I’m gonna be living with cancer. And I think that I want my life to be happy and healthy and hopeful. And I am very encouraged right now.

“So let’s — you know, let’s keep going. Let’s see where we end up.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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