Health & Wellness

‘Modern day miracle': How a suburban woman is defying odds after cancer diagnosis

Judy Armstrong, from Round Lake Beach, is living without active cancer after a stage four diagnosis in 2019

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You don’t often hear a doctor call someone a "miracle," but that's exactly what 74-year-old Judy Armstrong was called.

“She is a modern day miracle,” said Dean Tsarwhas, MD, medical director of cancer services at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

Armstrong, from Round Lake Beach, is living without active cancer after a stage four diagnosis in 2019.

“Turned out to be non-small cell lung cancer, metastasized to my brain,” Armstrong said.

It was Armstrong’s son, Greg, an EMT and firefighter, who urged his mom to go the emergency room during a card game in 2019.

“I was not playing the game as I usually do. I tend to win,” Armstrong said.

Scans and tests found a brain tumor that had spread from a tumor in her lung. Tsarwhas told Armstrong her life expectancy depended on how she responded to treatment.

“He said some patients are gone three to six months. Others have 15 years. And I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, 15 years, right,” Armstrong said.

She began a course of treatment that included chemotherapy, a newly-approved immunotherapy called Pembrolizumab and radiation.

“It wasn't a straight line where she did well all the time. She had some setbacks, but she persevered and she came through,” Tsarwhas said.

One set back in 2021 occurred when Armstrong got COVID-19 and spent 19 days in the hospital, but ultimately the treatments worked.

“You can see the tumor in the right brain was here and with the swelling around it, and that's totally gone here in the most recent scans,” Tsarwhas said, showing NBC Chicago health and wellness reporter Lauren Petty a side-by-side comparison of the brain scans.

“Judy’s disease is currently not active. She is not cured, I would say, but she's cancer free and living her best life,” Tsarwhas said.

Armstrong credits not only her treatments for her recovery, but also her community and her church for rallying around her.

“That encouragement, that community, and God leading it all, just helped me to have even more faith in the doctors, nurses and miracle workers at Northwestern,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong is back to playing cards every Sunday with her husband and sons and spending time with her 15-month-old grandson, someone she wasn’t sure she’d even get to meet.

“Grateful. unbelievably grateful. I live every day in gratitude,” Armstrong said.

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