Think lung cancer only happens to smokers? Unfortunately, there's no such thing as immunity from this disease. In 2012, lung cancer became the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada, and this year alone, the disease will kill more women than breast, ovarian, cervical, and uterine cancers combined.
"An increasing number of people have lung cancer and were never smokers or quit a long time ago, and that stigma is unfair," says Dr. Janessa Laskin, a medical oncologist at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver. "Blaming someone for their disease is devastating."
November marks Lung Cancer Awareness Month, a time to raise dollars for research to fight the disease, and bring awareness to end stigmas surrounding those affected.
John S. Konarowski, a former smoker who has stage IV lung cancer, says when he was diagnosed, even members of the medical community responded negatively or said it was "his fault for smoking."
In a recent survey by Lung Cancer Canada, 35 per cent of Canadian women said they felt more sympathetic towards women with breast cancer than they do towards women with lung cancer.
Lung cancer itself affects both smokers and non-smokers and men and women. Besides smoking, other causes of the disease include exposure to asbestos fibres, second-hand smoking and some natural chemicals like radon gas. These days, Laskin says she sees more and more women in their 40s and 50s, many of whom are shocked with their diagnoses at their age.
"I see an increase of younger women who never smoked or smoked 40 years ago and have cancer now," she says. "Part of the issue is physicians don't think about lung cancer and people don't either."
Early symptoms can vary for different people, but most commonly, lung cancer symptoms can include a cough that won't go away, fatigue and shortness of breath. However, Laskin says not all "long coughs" are deadly, and if you are concerned, you should contact a doctor for a chest X-ray.
The Huffington Post Canada talked to seven people currently living with the disease about awareness, their experiences with negativity and the healing process.
7 Stories Of Lung Cancer
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John S Konarowski
City: Bowmanville, Ont.
Current Diagnosis: Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer that has metastasized to ribs, liver and most recently to colon
My story begins in December 2007 when I was diagnosed with lung cancer. The next month I had my right lung removed followed by chemo and radiation therapy. By the summer, I was able to return to my career as a carpenter, working mainly on schools and hospitals. Almost two years to the day of my initial diagnosis, my cancer metastasized to my right ribs and more radiation and chemo followed.
I have been quite fortunate in that I have typically responded well to treatment and although I’m unable to do my fairly physical job, I have lived with minor symptoms and still enjoy a basically normal lifestyle. I have been able to participate in a few clinical trials and I am confident that this type of research will help to improve the lives of many people who face a similar diagnosis.
As a former smoker, I have certainly felt the stigma associated with the disease. Along my journey, there have been many – including those in the medical community – who have responded negatively when I told them I used to smoke but quit a long time ago. Few ever seem interested in the fact that I was exposed to many chemicals and asbestos in my profession. It struck me as odd that even well-informed individuals still just seemed to say "Oh well, you smoked. You're at fault."
Throughout my experience with lung cancer, I have been blessed with a great support net of family and friends and have also benefited from the help offered by the various Cancer centres and volunteers. I have never felt alone in this challenge. My continued mantra is “Remission...is coming”.
City: Edmonton, Alta
I was diagnosed in June 2009 with Stage IV lung cancer. Initially, my doctor believed my shoulder and arm pain to be a muscular issue as I worked at the post office, but a second opinion led to my diagnosis. My experience proves the value in seeking a second opinion.
The doctor found a small tumour in my lung and a larger mass in my shoulder as well as a tumour in my lymph nodes. At the time, my doctor said I had months to live. Four years later, after rounds of chemo and a clinical trial, I have no evidence of disease and I am beating the odds. Yet, the fight has not always been easy. When I was first diagnosed, I attended support groups but often felt isolated as most women in attendance had breast cancer. As someone who still struggles to quit smoking, I have often felt the stigma of the disease, and few seem interested in the fact that I had other toxic exposures in my role at a dry cleaning plant.
I am a firm believer that you need to be personally involved in your own healing and that you are the most important person on your medical team. I have a 27-year-old son and a 4-year-old granddaughter and I have really enjoyed becoming a grandmother. I am so grateful to my healthcare professional team for their help and support. I am thankful to be able to raise awareness of this disease and I view the opportunity to share my story as a gift.
City: Burlington, Ont.
I was diagnosed with Stage 3B lung cancer in 2010 after finding a swollen lymph node in my neck. Over the past few years, I have been through standard treatments – including chemo and radiation – as well as several clinical trials in my fight to stop the progression of the disease.
Although these treatments have not rid me of the cancer inside my body, I have managed more than three years without any drastic side effects or major changes to my overall well-being. I haven’t looked sick for a day during this journey, which is a blessing, but also drastically changes the conversation when people find out how sick I am. My quality of life shows that there can be people living very normal, active lives, even with lung cancer, which I believe challenges the stereotype.
I have three children and the youngest is nine. I play baseball and hockey, coach rep hockey, teach leadership at the University of Guelph, and am very active in the community. For me, the battle has been more mental and emotional, and I’ve shared my story on a personal blog that reaches a wide audience including other young families facing a lung cancer diagnosis.
As a director of a nonprofit, I have been struck by how competitive the world of cancer fundraising is, and I believe the stigma surrounding lung cancer can make it less compelling to the general public. I believe that stories of young, active people like myself can help change the public perception of the disease. While I believe that prevention is important in the fight against lung cancer, there is also an urgent need to help those fighting this disease now.
When I was 13, I was fortunate to meet Terry Fox and I am involved in the Terry Fox Run here in my community. To this day, I honour Terry Fox with a large tattoo on my right leg, the one he lost in his own battle.
Anne Marie Cerato
City: Toronto, Ont.
I was diagnosed with Stage 3A adenocarcinoma (cancer that affects several organs) in 2009 at the age of 30. After undergoing radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, in 2011, my cancer returned in both lungs. At the time, I was told to wait for further treatment until symptoms occurred, which was not an acceptable answer to me, so I started conducting my own research. I was fortunate enough to qualify for a clinical trial for Crizotinib, a targeted therapy drug. This treatment has improved my scans to the point that I now view my disease as chronic and manageable, rather than terminal. While I initially set a goal to live until age 40, I now feel like I am able to look much farther into my future.
When I think about the lack of funding and public awareness surrounding lung cancer, I believe that the stigma of the disease is probably one of the main factors. It seems like lung cancer is the ugly cousin; no one has any empathy when they think you deserve your disease. The truth is, no one deserves lung cancer whether they have smoked or not. We put a lot of attention on this ribbon or that “run” but ribbons and runs don’t matter when people are still dying. We need to do better. There have been breakthroughs in both treatment and diagnostics for lung cancer patients all courtesy of the hard work and dedication of physicians, researchers and clinicians. I can only imagine what could be achieved with adequate funding.
City: Richmond, B.C.
My battle with cancer has been ongoing since I was diagnosed at the age of five with synovial sarcoma which recurred at the age of 18. Both times the cancer was operable and I did not require chemo or radiation. Fast forward over two decades later, after three weeks of a persistent cough, I was diagnosed with Stage III small cell inoperable lung cancer.
In June 2012, I started chemotherapy. I am now undergoing second line salvage therapy chemotherapy three times a week every three weeks, as the first line of drugs did not work and has left me debilitated. It is the hardest thing I have ever had to endure. I am no longer working, am dependent on my family, and have aged considerably. I am only 44. Why three recurrences? I am a non-smoker, have lived a healthy lifestyle, and never done drugs; yet I have lung cancer, the biggest killer of all cancers.
With support from my loving family, a caring oncologist and team at the BCCA and a few special friends, I am getting through each moment of my life. I have always been spiritual and my faith has guided me into a place within where I have to believe there is a reason for this life-altering change. Perhaps it is to bring awareness and to make a difference by sharing my story with you. Lung cancer can happen to anyone who is healthy. If it happened to your own family member, what would you do knowing it is among the least funded, minimally supported and most stigmatized cancers?
I am the young woman you see in the photo taken before my diagnosis. I envision a day that I can be her — healthy again so I can celebrate my golden 50th birthday. Only with your support, compassion and understanding of this devastating disease can this be possible. I speak for many like myself.
I was shocked and surprised when, as a lifetime non-smoker, I was diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer three months after retiring in 2010 from a senior executive position at Hydro One. After video-assisted thoracic surgery to remove a lung lobe, followed by adjuvant chemotherapy, I was stable for two years until monitoring showed the presence of the cancer elsewhere.
Molecular tests on my tumour conducted as part of a clinical trial showed that I was a good candidate for treatment by a genetically targeted drug, which has controlled the tumour growth in my lungs and liver for over a year. I recently underwent successful cranial surgery to remove a metastatic brain tumour.
I feel so grateful that I am being treated at one of the best cancer hospitals in the world, the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, part of the University Health Network. As a PhD in Physics, I am convinced that research into early detection and advanced treatments (including personalized medicine) is on the brink of dramatically improving outcomes for cancer patients. I am so pleased to be able to volunteer my time in support of Lung Cancer Canada, where I am co-chair of the Advocacy Committee, as well as the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.
I was diagnosed in November 2012 with Stage IV lung cancer. As a non-smoker, I was shocked by the diagnosis. It seemed as though time had stopped when I heard the words “you have lung cancer.” Fortunately, a genetic test showed that I had the EGFR mutation and I was placed on the targeted therapy Iressa. So many things had been difficult for me — laughing, sleeping, walking — but Iressa has proven to be an effective treatment for me thus far and I can now walk, swim, bike and dance. My husband and 19-year-old son really helped me move forward after the diagnosis and I believe that Iressa saved my life.