A full life with cancer

March 19th, 2018

Dr. Alexandra Coffey used to run marathons.

Now she relishes simple walks, even though she must step gently on her tiptoes to minimize pressure and pain on her spine.

A full life with cancer. Dr. Ali Coffey decided to move to Colorado to live a more beautiful life after learning she had Stage IV lung cancer. Here she climbs a red rock.
Ali Coffey made a deliberate decision to live a beautiful, meaningful life after she learned she had lung cancer. Photo courtesy of Ali Coffey.

Coffey never smoked a cigarette in her life and was an avid and dedicated athlete. When she was 19, she was a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic handball team and was an alternate for the Los Angeles Games.

Now, at age 52, Coffey has Stage IV lung cancer that has spread to her bones.

Despite the sorrow of coping with the same cancer that killed her dad when she was 20, Coffey lives with hope.

“You can be diagnosed with a terminal illness and you can live a full life. It’s not the same life. But I haven’t stopped living,” Coffey said. “My life still has a lot of meaning and I’m very hopeful that I can live a long life.”

‘A Colorado hero’

The American Lung Association recently picked Coffey as a “Lung Force Colorado Hero” and brought her to Washington, D.C., where she met this month with members of Congress to advocate for more research funding to fight all cancers.

Dr. Ross Camidge, one of the premier lung cancer specialists in the country, is Coffey’s doctor and a big fan of his colleague, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician who works for the outpatient neurosciences department for UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.

A photo of Dr. Ross Camidge
Dr. Ross Camidge, one of the premier lung cancer experts in the U.S.

“Ali Coffey came to me with a bad cancer and a good attitude,” said Camidge, who is also a professor of medical oncology for the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“Our shared goal is to keep her cancer as a footnote, not a headline, in her life,” Camidge said. “She works very hard as a doctor and, like most doctors, hates being a patient. But somehow, it works out and being a dedicated doctor, who happens to have stage IV lung cancer, is just the new normal for her.”

Camidge said The Cancer Center aims to deliver individualized care to all patients so they, like Coffey, can focus on living rather than on being sick.

Ali and her wife, Aida, pose with rocks at Garden of the Gods in their new home, Colorado Springs.
Ali and her wife, Aida, love living close to great hiking trails. They made a move from New York to Colorado Springs after learning Ali had cancer. Photo courtesy of Ali Coffey.

“We don’t have a single, one-size-fits-all solution we pull out of a box. Just as we personalize care on a molecular level, pushing conventions when we can, we also like to personalize things on another level,” Camidge said. “Everyone on the team — from scheduler, to MA, pharmacist, dietician, social worker, nurse, NP and MD — aims to treat everyone we meet with lung cancer as a person first and a patient second.”

Coffey’s path to Colorado for work and cancer care came after a tough diagnosis and a simultaneous decision to boost her quality of life, be closer to nature and leave her home state of New York.

Cancer diagnosis brings clarity

Coffey had been working in the Bronx. Her commute from Long Island took 90 minutes each way. It was stressful, expensive and left her depleted of energy. The view outside her Bronx office window was a concrete wall full of graffiti.

“New York is a wonderful place to visit and a tough place to live. You’re constantly surrounded by traffic and buildings and people,” Coffey said.

Back in the fall of 2015, she wasn’t feeling well. Her chest hurt, so she thought she might have a virus. When it didn’t go away, she thought the pain might have stemmed from an infection around her heart called pericarditis. She went to an urgent care center that misdiagnosed her with pneumonia. A chest X-ray didn’t show the cancer that was lurking in her body.

A photo of Ali with her dog.
Ali loves getting out with their three dogs. Photo courtesy of Ali Coffey.

After a round of antibiotics failed to help her feel better, Coffey tried to tough it out. Her chest and back were so painful that she was taking Ibuprofen around the clock and using ice or heat packs whenever she could. After two more months, she finally sought care at an academic medical center. It was in early February of 2016, that she learned the devastating news that she had lung cancer. The diagnosis came as a shock even though her dad had died of lung cancer when she was 20 years old.

Coffey never had the typical symptoms, like a cough, shortness of breath, weight loss or a fever. Even now, her lung function is excellent. Unfortunately, however, her cancer has spread to her spine and her bones where lesions cause pain.

Her particular type of lung cancer is non-small cell, adenocarcinoma. She has two driver gene mutations: EGFR (exon 19 deletion) and T790M.

While the diagnosis was devastating, it also brought clarity.

“I needed to get out of New York. I needed more peace of mind. I needed to be closer to nature, so I started looking around the country for another job and another oncologist,” Coffey said.

She wanted a more meaningful life.

She happened to find a conference in Aurora for lung cancer patients at the University of Colorado Hospital, where Camidge was speaking. Coffey also started looking for jobs and made plans to visit a nephew in Boulder.

Remarkably, everything came together. She was interviewing for her job at UCHealth in Colorado Springs by the time she attended the conference.

She was eager to find a beautiful place to live near an academic medical center that offered the most cutting edge care for lung cancer.

Coffey and her wife, Aida Vila, decided they were ready for a change and moved to Colorado in early 2017, almost a year to the day after she learned she had cancer.

A meaningful life: work, elephants and India

Now Coffey has a 10-minute walk to work. She and Vila found a home with a view of Pikes Peak. Coffey loves the camaraderie of her team at work. She and Vila have three dogs and can’t believe they can drive just 15 minutes to go hiking. And Coffey’s office looks out over the US Olympic Training Center, a lovely vista compared to that concrete wall in the Bronx.

Prior to becoming a doctor, Coffey earned a Master’s degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology. She now specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, also know as physiatry, a branch of medicine that aims to enhance and restore functional ability and quality of life for those with disabilities and physical challenges.

She helps people cope with limitations and pain by offering non-surgical treatment and interventions. Some patients have had strokes and traumatic brain injuries. Others, like Coffey, are dealing with pain from cancer.

She lets her patients know that she understands their pain since she, too, must cope with it. Whenever she can, she gives them tips on how she got through a tough period. She might advise a lot of sleep after an infusion. Or, she’ll warn patients that certain medications might rob them of their sense of taste.

Sometimes, she just tears up with others in her shoes.

A photo of a man looking at an elephant in India.
Ali loved seeing elephants in India, a trip she and her wife made after learning she had lung cancer. Photo courtesy of Ali Coffey.

“It’s not an easy diagnosis,” Coffey said.

Still, she is choosing to relish life.

In January, Coffey and Vila seized the opportunity to visit India, where Coffey’s sister does international leadership workshops.

They loved visiting rural areas and learning how social enterprises are helping women empower and support their families through traditional crafts. They also spent time at The Art of Living Ashram in Bangalore. There, they got to spend time with Indrani and Maheshwara, two Ashram elephants that roamed freely. She also enjoyed Q&A sessions with the spiritual guru.

Coffey found great peace in a type of music called Kirtan, India’s ancient call and response form of chanting.

“I’m not very good at doing yoga poses anymore because my body can’t bend like it used to,” Coffey said. “But I can listen to the meditative yoga music and take it all in.

“You just go with the flow. I try not to think too far ahead. I try to maximize the time when I’m feeling well.”