She has lung cancer and she has a say

July 7, 2019
Sarah Hugo is photographed with her two daughters
Sarah Hugo has been diagnosed with lung cancer, which has spread to her brain. Photo courtesy Sarah Hugo.

Sarah Hugo is a bit of a wunderkind in the Crossfit gym in Castle Rock.

She can do pullups – as many as you want her to do – shimmy up a rope that hangs from the gym rafters and then pump iron.

Sarah, at 33, is a single mom, the proud mother of two girls, ages 10 and 7. Sarah hikes 14ers, navigates white water in a raft and enjoys camping.

Doing those activities is exhilarating, a reminder that she is living the lifestyle she wants. Sarah has a nutritionist who has her on a keto diet, and she is more in tune with her body than she’s ever been. She knows what foods give her energy and what foods make her sluggish.

In the gym and in the outdoors, she is uplifted.

“It’s a time when I don’t feel like I’m a sick person,’’ she said.

A lung cancer diagnosis

It has been more than three years since she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, and the cancer has spread to her brain.

In March 2016 while lifting weights with a friend, Sarah couldn’t finish the reps. She could barely finish conversations, the shortness of breath and fatigue was so strong. Her friend insisted she see a doctor and when she did, an X-ray showed tumors in both lungs — small-cell lung cancer.

Sarah came to UCHealth after providers at another health care facility gave her little hope.

Sarah Hugo is photographed with two girls and Santa Claus
Sarah Hugo and her daughters enjoy a visit with Santa Claus. Photo courtesy Sarah Hugo.

“They told me, ‘you’re never going to be able to lift weights or exercise like you used to.’ They kept saying, ‘you’re sick. You’re sick. Your life is changing.’ But I just did not agree with any of that,’’ Hugo said. “I didn’t feel like it was on my terms.’’

She met Dr. Tom Purcell, associate director for clinical services at the CU Cancer Center and chief medical officer of UCHealth’s Highlands Ranch Hospital.

“With Dr. Purcell, he was really good explaining everything that was going on with me, and they worked to get me to the goal where I could live the lifestyle  that I continue to live,’’ Hugo said.

Targeted cancer treatment

In addition to changing her ALK-mutation targeted cancer treatment to alectinib, Purcell prescribed physical conditioning and strength training.   He said, “it is a part of your treatment and will help you tolerate the actual cancer drug treatment much better.”  There are some obvious caveats for cancer patients and exercise and patients need to clear their activity plans with their treating physician before proceeding.

Exercise has been extremely important for Sarah and her quality of life. “It helps me with pain management and energy. We’re just keep trying to get the right treatment, the right medication, but here I am. I do CrossFit five or six days a week. Most days, I’m able to keep up with my kids,’’ she said.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s cancer has become resistant to several different targeted treatments. She has had a recent lung biopsy, and CU scientists grew her cancerous tissue in a laboratory to understand why treatments are not working.

A photo of Dr. Tom Purcell
Dr. Tom Purcell, associate director for clinical services at the CU Cancer Center and chief medical officer of UCHealth’s Highlands Ranch Hospital, is providing care for Sarah Hugo. Photo UCHealth.

“They found out that it is the same type of cancer but there are two different strands. They found out that one cancer is resistant to the medication and that one, medication works on the other strand,’ she said.

Beginning in July, Sarah will have to start systemic chemotherapy.

“Hopefully I won’t lose my hair and it won’t make me that sick, maybe just fatigued. That’s the next step and then we’ll go from there,’’ she said.

When this all started, her children were just 4 and 7 years old.

‘’My youngest was 4 when I first found out, and she’s been in extra mom mode and clingy lately. I think she’s getting to that age where she is finally putting two and two together and realizing the severity of the situation,’’ Sarah said. “It’s crazy, with the first doctor that I was with, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it past 12 months. March 29 was three years.’’

Time to enjoy her children

Since she no longer works full time, she’s been able to make it to all of the girls’ school activities and sporting events. A few months back, they spent time at Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, as part of an outing paid for by Inheritance of Hope, a foundation that provides lasting memories for families who have a loved one with a terminal illness.

Sarah Hugo and her daughters enjoy a moment with creative arts.
Sarah Hugo and her daughters enjoy a moment with creative arts. Photo courtesy Sarah Hugo.

“They provided amazing support groups while we were there, and we met a lot of families going through the same thing. The most amazing part was how they had separate groups for the kids who were encouraged to express their feelings on why cancer sucks.  It was a trip my kids will never forget,’’ Sarah said.

Along the journey, she said she has grown to appreciate Dr. Purcell and the UCHealth employees whom she has met while doing numerous CT scans, MRIs and blood tests.

“Dr. Purcell, I just love. He is so personable. I’ve never known a doctor that is so accessible to his patients and says, ‘If anything comes up, just text me.’ He’s pretty real with you too. If you want to know anything, you just ask.’’

“It is truly a privilege for our thoracic cancer team to treat Sarah,” Dr. Purcell said. “She has so much passion for life and is an example for all of us. Being treated for Stage IV lung cancer is so challenging. She has shown so much grit to get through all of the treatment while working and being an amazing mom.”

Sarah said she is thankful for the terrific people in Castle Rock who held a fundraiser for her. One of the gifts was a membership donated by the owners of CrossFit Loop in Castle Rock, where she works out five or six times a week. The gym also held a fundraiser for Sarah and when other gym members heard the benefit was for Sarah, they were stunned. Most had no idea she has cancer.

“Most of the time, I just ignore my cancer, and I pretend that it doesn’t exist,’’ Sarah said. “I’m living the lifestyle that I want.’’

She’s hiking and doing pull-ups in the gym but, most importantly, she’s being a mom.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.