Shirley Muldowney on her cancer scare: 'I really needed a break'

Shirley Muldowney was diagnosed with lung cancer in March. At the end of May, doctors told her it was a treatable fungus, not cancer. Icon Sportswire via AP Images

Shirley Muldowney carried a heavy burden when she traveled to Gainesville, Florida, in March to serve as official starter of the Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals. The "First Lady of Drag Racing" had just been told she had lung cancer, and she didn't want to share the devastating news with anyone.

It would be more than a month before Muldowney, 75, would tell even her sister, Linda Roque, and then her publicist, Rob Geiger. Geiger stayed quiet until May 24, when he issued a stunning news release saying Muldowney would undergo surgery in Charlotte, North Carolina, the next day to remove her right lung, "where a Stage II tumor has grown."

But a few days later, there would be stunning news again. And this time, it came from the other end of the emotional spectrum. Tests had confirmed that Muldowney did not have cancer after all. Doctors had needed to remove only a portion of her lung containing a histoplasmosis, a fungus caused by inhaling fungal spores. It had abscessed and become surrounded by fibrosis and chronic inflammation, presenting itself as cancer.

Days would go by before Muldowney would learn for sure from renowned thoracic and cardiac surgeon Dr. Harold Howe that she didn't have cancer.

"It was around 10 o'clock at night when Dr. Howe came in, and he had this look on his face," Muldowney said from her home in Huntersville, North Carolina, on Tuesday in her first interview since being discharged from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. "He said, 'I've got some good news for you.' Finally, some good news, I thought.

" 'It's not cancerous,' he said. It's not cancerous. It took a minute for the words to sink in. He said, 'Do you know what a gift that is?' I said, 'Yes, I do.' I was like, 'God, I really needed a break.' I truly need a break, and I got it."

The cancer reversal was a lift for Muldowney's legions of fans, many of whom have sent cards and letters and showered her with support on her social media channels. Few, if any, drivers have had a greater in impact in drag racing than Muldowney, who became the first woman to earn an NHRA professional license and won three NHRA Top Fuel championships between 1977 and 1982. Few have been more beloved.

And Muldowney hasn't gone about retirement quietly. She maintains a visible presence in drag racing circles and through her charitable organization, Shirley's Kids, which helps children in need in cities where drag racing is part of the community.

Muldowney traces the first sign of trouble to last September, when she had trouble clearing some mucus.

"In a very unladylike way, I cleared my throat and spit it into my sink," she said. "And it was nothing but a huge clot of blood. I was like, 'What the hell is that?' "

She thought about it, she said, and remembered that she had just begun to take an over-the-counter medication rather than a prescribed drug for her orthopedic pain, and she wasn't taking it with food and a full glass of water as directed. Surely, that had caused some internal bleeding, she decided.

But it happened again a few months later -- about three weeks before the Gatornationals. This time, Muldowney's personal physician, Dr. David Cook, called her in. An X-ray turned up "something they didn't like," Muldowney recalled, so Cook sent her immediately to a team of specialists that included Drs. William Mitchell, Nicolo Marsoni and Howe.

"Long story, short, I went in and they did their evaluation and said, 'We'll get back to you, don't call us,' " Muldowney said. "Well, about 10 o'clock that night, my phone rang and I looked over and it was Dr. Cook. 'Shirley, I have some bad news for you.' And that's how it began.' "

Additional testing, including and bronchoscopy and other imaging, seemed to confirm what the doctors already believed was a cancerous Stage II tumor. "I did not go into hysterics," Mowdowney said of her reaction. "I just sucked it up and said, 'OK, where do we go from here? Will I lose my hair?' And Dr. Marsoni said, 'That's a long way down the road. We aren't even going to talk about that.' "

Lung cancer. Muldowney couldn't believe what she was hearing. She had smoked early in life, but she'd quit in 1982. That was 34 years ago. She found herself staring at the chest X-ray on her doctor's computer and finally asked if she could snap a picture with her cellphone. "It was a tumor and had hooked itself to my windpipe," she said. "I saw this thing, and I mean it was scary looking. It lit up like it had a light on in the picture."

But of course the diagnosis was wrong, and according to Muldowney, all of her doctors are amazed.

"The histoplasmosis is a fungus that she inhaled a long time ago, and it stuck to the inside of her lung and became abscessed," said Roque, who is staying with her sister and helping to care for her. "It's prevalent up around Michigan, where she used to live. And there are different spores in different parts of the country. Because of the traveling Shirley did, she picked it up somewhere."

Muldowney planned to tell no one. She would battle and defeat the disease privately.

"I'm thinking, 'OK, you lose your hair, you can get a wig. I can get through this and not have to tell the world,' " she remembered thinking. " 'I can get through this.' Yeah right. That was a joke."

She made it through her tests and surgery with the feisty fighting spirit that characterized her through five decades of racing. But there was a point in the ordeal, she said, when the pain overwhelmed her.

What her new doctors didn't know, she said, is that she has a high drug tolerance because of the medication she takes for conditions related to her racing accidents, including a 1984 crash at Montreal that crushed her hands, pelvis and legs and required about a dozen operations.

So when she woke up in the recovery room, it wasn't a pretty sight. She needed more pain meds, and stat.

"All of a sudden, I sat up in bed and was screaming to them I was dying," Muldowney said. "That's what the pain was like -- I kept telling them 'I am dying. I can't breathe.' And I couldn't breathe. So they got to me. There were doctors and nurses running all over this room; I mean, they kept telling me 'you're not dying' and I'd said, 'Yes, I am.' That was a bad experience. But eventually, they got me stabilized."

And now Muldowney is home recovering "under the watchful eye," as a recent tweet said, of her two cherished Chihuahuas. She has been given a goal of being able to walk 2 miles by the eight-week mark after her surgery.

Muldowney is already thinking ahead to resuming her travel schedule, which was supposed to include serving as grand marshal at the Jr. Drag Racing Western Finals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in just three weeks. Geiger says that's unlikely and a more likely return for Muldowney is the Mopar NHRA Mile High Nationals in Denver from July 22-24.

"They were wonderful to me at Presbyterian, wonderful," Muldowney said, also praising her team of doctors. "The nurses' station, they'd do their duty and then run back to the screen to look at my Facebook and my website. Then the little bell would ring and they'd run out and do their duty again.

"The food was good, too. I couldn't get over how good food could be in a hospital.

"So that's the deal. That's what happened. Again, I came out on top."