Sailing His Way Though Victory – and Recovery
- Santiago Lange had surgery for lung cancer in 2015. Less than a year later, he won a gold medal for sailing at the Rio Olympic Games. Now, the 59-year-old is headed to his seventh Olympics this summer.
- Lung cancer, the second most common type of cancer, is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women in the United States.
- Declining smoking rates and improvements in surgical techniques and radiation delivery have greatly improved the outlook for people with lung cancer in recent years.
The four-time world champion from Argentina was shocked when doctors found a nodule in his left lung in 2015. He had been struggling with consistent colds and feeling very low on energy for a while, but Lange never thought cancer could be a possibility.Read More
Doctors kept telling him he needed to have surgery, but Lange was tough to convince. He tried to have multiple endoscopies to test if his nodule was benign or malignant, but doctors were never able to reach it because of its location. He was forced to have surgery where he knew about 80 percent of his left lung would be removed.
“I thought if I lost 80 percent of my lung my career would be over,” Lange wrote. “But I was thinking about more than sailing; I was thinking about my life. I like to surf and cycle and play squash – I am an outdoor guy, and I use my body.”
Lange had his surgery in 2015, and, looking back, he’s glad he did.
“If I hadn’t had the operation I wouldn’t be here, 100 percent,” Lange wrote.
But despite his fears, his operation did not stop him from reaching the highest of athletic achievements. He wanted to start training as soon as possible after surgery, so he left the intensive care unit after 24 hours. He could only whisper for four months after surgery with great effort, but he was exercising anyway. One month and five days after surgery, the two-time Olympic bronze medalist was back on a boat and “pushing like hell.”
“After the surgery I was full-on – I was on fire,” Lange wrote. “The surgery in a certain way motivated me to get to Rio. That was what I cared about, not money or anything else.”
And not only did he make it, he dominated the competition. Less than a year after surgery, he won a gold medal with his partner Cecilia Carranza Saroli in the Nacra 17 Mixed class at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Looking back, he realized how helpful it was to have the Olympics as a goal post-surgery.
“Through my comeback, I learned how important it is to have objectives in life. You need them,” he wrote. “With full respect to other people who have been in my situation, I am an athlete, and I love challenges. I was lucky to have the Rio 2016 Olympics a year away so my mind didn’t get trapped in the cancer or the surgery, it looked forward to the games.”
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.”
Advancements in Lung Cancer Treatment
The outlook for lung cancer has improved greatly in recent years due to declining smoking rates and improvements in surgical techniques and radiation delivery. Newer treatments like immunotherapy and targeted agents are also dramatically improving the length and quality of life for lung cancer patients. Targeted therapies, for example, allows doctors to target specific genetic mutations in lung cancer patients.
“It’s amazing to me now that you can have stage 4 lung cancer and actually not even need chemotherapy,” Dr. Brendon Stiles, chief of thoracic surgery & surgical oncology at Montefiore and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “If you have high expression of a protein that we know is targeted by immunotherapy, you may just get immunotherapy alone.”
Erlotinib (Tarceva) and gefitinib (Iressa) are among the first targeted drugs approved to treat lung cancer, he explained. These drugs have proven effective in prolonging the time that the cancer does not worsen in combination with chemotherapy and immunotherapy and when used alone. Given as pills, these and other similar drugs work by targeting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a protein that, when overreactive, makes cancer cells grow and divide.
These mutations are more common in people with lung cancer who are female or who have never smoked, Dr. Ronald Natale, director of the Lung Cancer Clinical Research Institute at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told SurvivorNet.
And, thankfully, we’ve seen other steps towards treatment improvements very recently when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new treatment for people with a type of lung cancer that is particularly resistant to treatment because it contains a genetic mutation called KRAS. The drug, called sotorasib (brand name: Lumakras), is meant for lung cancer patients whose tumors have a mutation called KRAS G12C and whose cancer has spread even after treatment with chemotherapy or other medications.