At age 29, lung cancer survivor advocates for ‘listening to your body’

November 23, 2020
Kelly Bulak sits on a park bench with trees in the background
Kelly Bulak thought her persistent cough and wheezing were due to pneumonia, but she received a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis instead. She encourages others to be proactive about their health if anything seems off. Photo by Kelsey Hudnall

Kelly Bulak has always had an eye for architecture and interior design. So when she saw an opportunity to head back to school to earn a Master of Science in Historic Preservation through Clemson University and the College of Charleston, she quit her job and jumped at the chance to begin a dream career of researching and potentially restoring old homes.

Her excitement over returning to school was cut short, however, by an unexpected phone call on the Friday before classes began.

Bulak, 29, had just pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex after a leisurely drive home from a CT scan — one that was recommended by her primary care doctor at MUSC Health as a precaution after several months of a persistent cough and wheeze. She thought the call would mean a confirmed diagnosis of pneumonia, and that she’d be back to feeling better in no time.

“My doctor said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but you have a mass,’” Bulak recalled. “I started breathing really heavy. I pulled the phone away from my face, hoping he wouldn’t be able to hear me. To me, him telling me that meant I had cancer.”

The next week brought a lot of anxiety about what the future might hold as Bulak and her family waited for results of a biopsy. She was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and further scans at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center revealed an additional mass in her thyroid, which was identified as Hurthle cell thyroid cancer. Then began myriad conversations and decisions she never expected to be making as she approached her 30th birthday.

“The first few nights, everything was just racing through my head. I was thinking, ‘Who’s going to take care of my cat? When is my hair going to fall out?’ Every bad scenario you can think of, I thought through all of it,” said Bulak. “Honestly, up until the diagnosis was probably the worst part. What can you do besides keep going to the doctor?”

Navigating unexpected decisions

Prior to when her symptoms began in the spring of 2020, Bulak described herself as “super healthy.” Like many young adults, she enjoyed regular trips to the gym, and her only medical concern was the occasional sinus infection. When she developed a cough, she assumed it was just a different variety of infection.

Because of the pandemic, she wasn’t able to visit her doctor in person. A few telehealth visits left her with prescriptions for a respiratory infection and an anti-inflammatory drug to open her lungs and improve her wheeze. It wasn’t until a few months later that she realized she still wasn’t feeling back to normal, but her busy schedule kept her from regularly checking in with her doctor.

When August came, sudden pain in her chest one weekend led her to seek urgent care. An X-ray revealed what was suspected to be pneumonia, but a second opinion from a pulmonologist through a mutual friend led her doctor to order a CT scan, revealing the large mass in her chest.

“It was obviously a shock,” said Bulak, who considers herself fortunate to have never been close with anyone who has been affected by cancer. “I haven’t closely encountered cancer before. The doctors were saying that I’m not even at an age where I should be thinking about being tested for a gene that runs in my family for a cancer.”

Other unexpected conversations she had to face included where to have a port inserted and whether to freeze her eggs.

“I told my doctors I wanted to be as aggressive as possible. I want to survive.”
— Kelly Bulak

“I’m not dating anyone right now, so it already feels weird to think about having a baby, let alone to combine that thought with cancer,” said Bulak. “That was a tough decision, and something I was totally blindsided by.”

Though the news of her cancer was sudden, Bulak was bold and decided to face her diagnosis head on by pursuing an aggressive combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, preceded by four rounds of radiation.

“I told my doctors I wanted to be as aggressive as possible,” said Bulak. “I want to survive.”

While it can take weeks for the effects of treatment to become fully present, Bulak’s first progress scan on Nov. 2, which followed her third round of chemo, revealed the mass in her chest already had drastically reduced in size and begun to break up — a sign that the radiation was working. The nodules in her lungs also have shrunk, and some have even disappeared, meaning her chemotherapy is also working.

She hasn’t had any major side effects from her treatment, and she’s already experiencing improvement in her symptoms. The news was a welcome relief after months of what felt like total uncertainty about her prognosis.

“We are all so excited. My Hollings care team said they were all texting the night when my scan notes were posted and the images came up and talking about how excited they were for the news,” said Bulak. “My cough hasn’t gone away, but it’s way better, and I’m sleeping through the night. My laugh used to be interrupted by a cough, which was terrible, but now I can laugh again. There has been improvement.”

Faith, trust and support

Even with the excitement over her positive results so far, Bulak knows she has a long road ahead as her treatment continues to break down her cancer bit by bit.

While the timing of her diagnosis wasn’t great, she’s thankful to have graduate school as a distraction and to keep her busy. She’s enjoying touring many of the beautiful old homes for which Charleston is known and learning about their histories — an activity she hopes her classes will help to translate from a hobby into a well-established career.

“Before I even knew what historic preservation was, one of my favorite things to do was house tours and just wandering around Charleston. Going to a new city and seeing a cool, big, old house, I would immediately dream up what happened there, how many people lived there and how many stories they’d tell if those walls could talk,” said Bulak, a native of Columbia, South Carolina.

Kelly Bulak sits on the steps outside the Aiken Rhett House in Charleston 
Bulak, who is pursuing a master's degree in historic preservation, sits outside the Aiken-Rhett House, her favorite historic home in Charleston. Photo by Kelsey Hudnall

“I love the idea of researching and then telling the story of a building. And once you do a certain amount of research, sometimes it can help qualify a house to be put on a national registry, which can permanently save the structure. There are certain styles of building that just aren’t used anymore and craft and artisanry that we can still learn from.”

Her favorite historic home in town is the Aiken-Rhett House, which uses a preservation technique that has left the home in the condition in which it was found, including holes in the ceiling and wallpaper that’s peeling off. “It’s a really interesting state to find it in because it’s easy to go to a house that’s pristinely restored and forget where you are. It’s like a fantasyland,” she said.

Aside from her studies, Bulak leans on her parents and friends for support. She has received many gift baskets since her treatment started as well as calls and texts just to check in and catch up on life. She also keeps a journal detailing her treatment journey, which she has found helpful to look back on throughout the process.

She’s thankful for the quick and caring minds she has found in her Hollings care team, which includes medical oncologist John Wrangle, M.D.; physician assistant Michele Taffaro-Neskey; and nurse navigator Claudia Miller, R.N.

“Dr. Wrangle is so proactive. When he’s in the room with you, you can just see that he’s pulling on his hair already thinking of a new strategy,” said Bulak. “Everyone is really willing to sit and take time and listen to you and be responsive. I’d recommend MUSC to anyone.”

While lung cancer affects less than one person per 100,000 in her age group in the U.S., Bulak hopes her story will serve as a stark reminder that cancer can affect anyone at any time. She encourages other young adults to be proactive in their health and to speak up when something seems “off.”

“It’s certainly important to raise awareness. I’m stage 4, and I didn’t even feel that bad. I kind of ignored my symptoms. I had a cough for four months. I let the antibiotics go through my system, and then I would wait a couple of weeks. Then I would get busy rather than realizing things hadn’t improved and that I should call my doctor. It takes one second. I wish I was a little more aggressive about checking in with him,” said Bulak. “My advice would be to go to the doctor if you have any symptoms. Don’t feel stupid. Listen to your body, and take time for yourself.”

Trusting her care team with the things that are outside of her control has also brought her comfort.

“Finding a way to accept what’s happening has been helpful,” said Bulak. “I understand that I’m sick and that there’s nothing I can personally do better than what the Hollings Cancer Center can do for me.”