Facing Lung Cancer as a Nonsmoker
- Saundra Moore, 64, went to the emergency room with “discomfort in the upper right side of [her] back.” But what doctors discovered through subsequent tests was that she had stage one lung cancer.
- It’s unclear if Moore’s pain was related to her cancer, but her advice to others is simple: “Pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to what’s going on in your own body.”
- Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer and it can develop in both smokers and non-smokers, but people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who don’t smoke.
- Still, the CDC reports that about 10 to 20 percent of lung cancers in the United States, or 20,000 to 40,000 lung cancers each year, happen in people who’ve never smoked.
- Being your own advocate can be key to getting a correct cancer diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis. One of our experts says there should be a plan for what your doctor is going to do for you after you leave every appointment.
Moore, 64, promptly visited her doctor when the pain in her side began. But since everything – including her tests – seemed normal and her pain subsided, Moore eventually forgot about the issue altogether.Read More
“I was very surprised. Even my pulmonologist was very surprised. He said, ‘Saundra, I’m looking at you and you’re a very healthy person,’” she said. “I don’t understand what the heck (happened).
“I wasn’t symptomatic. I had no difficulty in breathing. I had no coughing, no hoarseness … which were the typical signs, and I don’t smoke.”
For treatment, Dr. Raja Flores, system chair of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai, performed a minimally invasive surgery to remove her cancer.
“He said, ‘I will not watch you. I’m going to remove the lower lobe because I don’t want to have to come back to do something all over again,’” Moore said.
While at the hospital, Moore also suffered from blood clots in her lungs, also called a pulmonary embolism.
“Despite me having a pulmonary embolism, my oxygen levels were still pretty good,” she said. “Emotionally it took a lot from me because I’m usually a very independent person, and to me, it was having to depend on others to do things for me, which I didn’t like.”
Recovering took Moore about five or six months, but she still had to fight the urge to “hurry to do things.” In addition, the mental recovery has been an ongoing struggle.
“I have to slowly take my time,” she said. “I try to breathe the way I normally want to breathe so (returning to that) took a little bit of time.
“My emotional recovery for me, I’m still trying to recover… Last night I was crying because it actually hit me suddenly.”
In sharing her story with the public, she hopes that others can learn to prioritize themselves even when they’re constantly taking care of others.
“I was so caught up in taking care of everyone else I wasn’t even taking care of my own self,” Moore said. “Pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to what’s going on in your own body.”
Understanding Lung Cancer
Lung cancer, the second most common type of cancer, is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women in the United States. Diagnosis and treatment of the disease can be tricky since symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer has spread.
An initial symptom, for example, could be as serious as a seizure if the lung cancer has already spread to the brain. But other symptoms can include increased coughing, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, wheezing, losing your voice or persistent infections like bronchitis or pneumonia.
The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell, which makes up 85 percent of cases, and small-cell. These types act differently and, accordingly, require different types of treatment.
Dr. Patrick Forde, a thoracic oncologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells SurvivorNet about how distinguishing between the two types – and their subtypes – can be very beneficial.
“Within that non-small cell category, there’s a subtype called non-squamous adenocarcinoma, and that’s the group of patients for whom genetic testing is very important on the tumor,” he explains. “Genetic testing is looking for mutations in the DNA, in the tumor, which are not present in your normal DNA.”
Lung Cancer for Non-Smokers
Declining smoking rates have lead to an improved outlook for lung cancer since cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for the disease. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that cigarette smoking is linked to about 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths, and people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who don’t smoke.
It’s important to remember, however, that even people who’ve never smoked before can still get lung cancer. The CDC reports that, in the United States, about 10 to 20 percent of lung cancers, or 20,000 to 40,000 lung cancers each year, happen in people who’ve never smoked.
“Some lung cancers are from unknown exposure to air pollution, radon, or asbestos,” Dr. Raja Flores told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “We also see more never-smokers with lung cancer who have a family history of it.”
Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer. It’s responsible for anywhere from 3 to 16 percent of cancer cases depending on the levels present in a given area, according to the World Health Organization, but smokers are still 25 times more at risk from radon than non-smokers.
Another possibility for the cause of lung cancer in a non-smoker can be second-hand smoke. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 7,000 adults die of lung cancer annually from breathing secondhand smoke.
Air pollution, family history, HIV or AIDs can also all impact the chances of a non-smoker getting lung cancer. No matter what, it’s important to not rule out the disease just because you don’t smoke – a fact that Donna Hunting knows all too well.
Just like Saundra Moore, Hunting was a non-smoker when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. But the active 54-year-old’s cancer had progressed further given that she had stage four non-small cell lung cancer.
“That day was shattering to my family and to me,” she previously told SurvivorNet. “It’s not a smokers’ disease. If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.”
Fortunately for Hunting, testing revealed that her tumors had a mutation in a specific gene called EGFR. This meant that doctors were able to give her a pill to block those mutations and effectively rid her body of the disease.
“After 50 days, miraculously, my PET scan showed no evidence of disease,” she said.
Hunting took the drug for over a year, until it stopped working as well. Now she’s on a different daily medication, but – thanks to advancements in treatment – she’s able to live with the disease.
“Cancer is a part of my life now, but it isn’t my whole life. I’m not letting cancer define me,” Hunting said.
The Importance of Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling cancer or worried that you might have it, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer is an incredibly serious disease, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer.
And, as we saw in the case of Saundra Moore, it’s always crucial to speak up about any changes to your health even if you don’t think there’s anything sinister behind them.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.