Surviving a Pancoast tumor: Mark’s story

Mark Kubicki, Pancoast tumor survivor
Pictured: Thanks to Dr. Hennon and Dr. Fabiano, Mark Kubicki is able to enjoy a lot more moments with his daughter.

There are certain people you meet in life who have an attractive quality about them. You’re drawn to them. They are magnetic. Their energy is enough to power the room. That describes Mark Kubicki.

Mark was well known as the owner of the Outdoor Cabin store in Depew, New York, for over 25 years. Now retired, he enjoys spending lots of quality time with his friends and family. Even now, he's always staying active and keeping busy.

Mark Kubicki, Pancoast tumor survivor
If you're looking for Mark, you can always find him enjoying the great outdoors.

“They called me ‘pinball’ because I can never sit still,” he says.

But Mark began to slow down in 2019 when a searing pain in his shoulder caused him to lose sleep.

“It was like someone had stuck a rod into my chest, and it came out my shoulder,” Mark recalls. “I went to see my doctor and had X-rays done, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I knew it couldn’t be just my shoulder or some tendonitis. I’ve never felt a pain like this before.”

The pain only got worse. Over the next couple of months, Mark went to five emergency rooms a total of nine times.

“Every time, I was told that the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong,” he says. “I couldn’t even sleep. I kept track: There were 38 days when I didn’t sleep in bed because the pain was so bad. I’d be lucky to nod off in a recliner, but then an hour later, the pain would wake me up.”

When it was time to get the CT scan, he was in too much pain to lie down in the machine. A shot of novocaine helped numb the injury enough to complete the scan. The results were certainly unexpected.

“I knew something was strange when nobody would tell me what was going on,” Kubicki recalls. “Finally, a physician assistant told me I had a Pancoast tumor. I didn’t know what that was, but when I Googled it, it didn’t look good.”

A quick search revealed that a Pancoast tumor is a type of lung cancer.

“When I saw that word ‘cancer,’ I didn’t know what to do. My doctor told me that it’s rare and that Roswell Park might not even know what to do. I decided to spend one day there, as the commercial says. After that, I was put on a new medication to help handle my pain and felt so much better. Going to Roswell Park saved my life.”

Finding hope

At his initial appointment, Mark met Mark Hennon, MD, FACS, a thoracic surgeon, who was honest and upfront with him about his diagnosis.

“Pancoast tumors are rare. They make up less than 5% of all lung cancers that are surgically resected,” says Dr. Hennon. “I explained that the prognosis of this kind of tumor is guarded, or tough to figure out. They are usually aggressive, and if it requires surgery, the road to recovery can be long and often painful.”

Despite what most consider bad news, Mark wasn’t deterred.

“I looked Dr. Hennon straight in the eyes, shook his hand, and told him that I have never lost and I have never quit. I don’t plan on starting now,” Mark recalls. “Roswell may have been my last hope, but I had hope.

“There are 52 cards in a deck. If 51 are gone, that last one could be the ace you need. I was going to make it.”

Rare tumor provides a challenge

A closer look at Mark’s diagnosis was troubling to Dr. Hennon. The tumor had grown since it was first discovered on his initial CT scan, and treatment would be trickier than previously thought.

“What makes Pancoast tumors so tough is where they are located,” says Dr. Hennon. “Pancoast tumors form in the upper part of the lung. When they grow, as Mark’s did, they can press on the spinal column and pose a big threat to someone’s quality of life.”

Issues involving the spinal column require an experienced neurosurgeon. Fortunately, at a comprehensive cancer center like Roswell Park, you don’t have to look too far to find one of those. Andrew Fabiano, MD, FAANS, was called in to provide a consult on Mark’s tumor.

“I see multiple patients with lung cancer each month,” says Dr. Fabiano. “Often, lung tumors can grow and press on the spine, or vice versa. It’s important to treat these cases carefully, with a multidisciplinary approach.”

“I spent a lot of time talking with Dr. Fabiano,” adds Mark. “He took the time to explain to me what he was going to do and how it was going to work. It was like having a cup of coffee with a friend. I told him, ‘You and Dr. Hennon are going to figure this out and I’m going to get better and make you guys look great!’”

The beginning of treatment involved radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, but those proved unsuccessful.

“Normally, in these situations, radiation and chemotherapy ideally would start to kill the tumor,” says Dr. Hennon. “If the tumor starts to die, it will shrink and pull away from the spinal cord a bit. Then a surgeon can come in and do the rest. The standard of surgery would normally be a thoracotomy.

“But with a Pancoast tumor located at the very top of the lung, that approach may need to be altered. First, we needed to get the tumor away from the important nerves of the spinal column before we could begin to perform a very complicated surgery.”

This would require some intraoperative techniques, such as stimulating the nerves while looking at the tumor margins to avoid touching important nerves in the spinal cord or brachial plexus.

“In these situations, a tumor can sometimes ‘stick’ to the nerves,” Dr. Fabiano adds. “This was a very complex surgery that required a well-coordinated team approach, which we thankfully were able to provide for Mark.”

Dr. Fabiano made a small incision to successfully move the tumor away from the spinal column. From there, Dr. Hennon made a separate incision to begin removing the mass itself.

“Having Dr. Fabiano there doing his part first made things a lot smoother on my end,” says Dr. Hennon. “It’s a long and complex procedure, with a painful recovery. It’s a challenge, but I knew Mark could handle it. He’s resilient. He’s got a great attitude and amazing focus.”

Mark adds, “I told the doctors, 'Do whatever you can to take the whole tumor out, no matter how long it takes or how tough it is.' They warned me that I could have paralysis for some time after the surgery, but as long as I was alive and cancer-free, it didn’t matter to me.”

Treating Pancoast tumors at Roswell Park

Once thought to be inoperable, the treatment of Pancoast tumors has advanced over time, making a difference for patients like Mark.

Learn more

A life-changing result

After a very lengthy surgery, Mark made good on his promise; he was a winner.

“I beat the grim reaper,” he says proudly. “I knew my chances were not great. It was scary to get my affairs in order. So many people told me to take trips and enjoy every little thing I could before my operation. I had to be strong. I wanted to keep things from my daughter and not let her see the fear in my eyes.

“My life changed that day I woke up after surgery.”

“Everything went as well as we could have hoped for in surgery," recalls Dr. Hennon, "and there were no long-lasting side effects, paralysis or numbness, outside of soreness and the pain of recovering from surgery.

“I can’t overstate how long a road recovery can be, but Mark exemplifies what I hope for our patients. He is positive but realistic. He’s a fighter and he leaves you feeling so good about yourself after you talk to him.”

Dr. Fabiano agrees with his colleague.

“Mr. Kubicki didn’t over-analyze his disease. He was so focused on taking things one step at a time and controlling what he could control. He knew this was going to be a major operation, but he stayed positive the whole time. He’s so resilient.”

After surgery, Mark was quick to bounce back  in fact, perhaps a little too quick.

“A week later, I was driving a car and doing some housework,” he says. “I was probably doing a little too much, because the doctors reminded me about how intense the surgery was and told me I needed to slow down.

“I still have my ups and downs with my pain and healing, good days and bad days. It can get uncomfortable at times. I was told it might take two years before I feel 100% again.”

Physical pain pales in comparison to the emotional weight that was lifted post-surgery.

“The hardest part of any of this wasn’t the shoulder pain or the surgery, but writing my daughter 10 years’ worth of birthday cards, Christmas cards, Valentine’s cards, little things to let her know how much she meant to me in case I didn’t make it,” Mark says.

“The greatest feeling was being able to burn them in a fire, because now I’ll be there to tell her all these things in person.”

UPDATE: Since Mark’s story was originally published, his cancer returned twice. He is currently doing well and being monitored by doctors from Roswell Park and Moffit Cancer Center in Florida, where he now lives. 

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.