Anyone Can Get Lung Cancer

It’s difficult to get people to understand the importance of getting checked if you have symptoms of lung cancer. Particularly for nonsmokers. It generally never occurs to someone who doesn’t smoke to think to get checked for lung cancer. Symptoms such as a persistent cough that doesn't go away, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, wheezing or noisy breathing (called stridor) may all be signs of lung cancer. Anyone can get lung cancer and more than 433 people a day die from lung cancer, so I wish we could get the message out that it’s no longer just a smoker’s disease.

My friend, Stephen

My friend Stephen was a nonsmoker who was an all-American and national champion lacrosse player at the University of North Carolina. He was 45 years old. When he had a persistent cough in the spring of 2015 he didn’t think anything of it. He thought it was allergies or he was getting a cold. Never did he think to see his doctor about lung cancer. So when he texted me on a Tuesday in August to tell me he was going to have some tests done, I didn’t think anything of it either. By Saturday he was on a ventilator, after being diagnosed with pneumonia and stage 4 lung cancer. He died 3 weeks later.

This had a huge impact on me both because he was my friend, and because it was just so shocking that someone as apparently healthy as he was could die from lung cancer so quickly. I had just seen him a few days before he went in to see his doctor, and I didn’t notice anything different about him – no coughing or any weakness.

Finding help sooner

So how do we help people like him get to treatment sooner? He was given Tarceva after getting off the ventilator. Tarceva is a targeted treatment for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC). But it was too late for my friend. In my case, I had 2 bouts of pneumonia before I found out I had lung cancer. So, I was remiss in getting checked as well. But I was much more fortunate that my cancer was not late stage.

The moral of my story is to not ignore any of the signs of lung cancer even if you never smoked. It is estimated that as many as 20% of lung cancer deaths are nonsmokers.1 This translates to about 30,000 Americans in 2017. In fact, if lung cancer in nonsmokers had its own separate category, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States.

Be your own advocate

If your healthcare professional doesn’t check you should talk to him/her about it. Be proactive in your own health – be your own advocate. And if a friend or loved one has any of these symptoms, be proactive and tell them to go see a doctor. This is the way it should be in a patient advocate system of healthcare.2 My friend left behind a wife and 4 children. I wish he had seen his doctor sooner.

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