Lung Cancer: Not Just A Smoker's Disease.2:00 AM
I read this article and it hit so close to home. I'm praying for Jeanine that she make it through this lung cancer. My mother was a smoker and a lung cancer survivor, thank God. I remember my mom having a persistent cold and cough that wouldn't go away and after arguing that it's just a "smoker's cough", she finally went to the doctor and found out it was lung cancer stage 2. Thankfully they caught it early and with surgery and aggressive chemotherapy, my mom survived lung cancer and in September, will be celebrating 8 years cancer free. When I read the article below on Everyday Health, it was a sobering reminder of how fragile life can be and that lung cancer can happen to anyone, it doesn't discriminate. This poor girl never even smoked and she has stage IV lung cancer. What a nightmare.
Jeanine Pucci was surprised to learn her persistent cough was something more serious.
Jeanine had never smoked a day in her life
For teachers, colds are just part of the job. So when Jeanine Pucci, 43, developed a cough in the early fall of 2013, she assumed she caught something from one of her first graders.
“But the cough didn’t seem to be going away,” Pucci remembers.
After about two months of persistent coughing and urging from her friends, she finally went to a walk-in clinic where a chest X-ray revealed a mass on her lungs. A doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering later told her she had stage IV lung cancer that had spread to her bone. The news, delivered just days before Thanksgiving, came as a shock in part because the cancer was so advanced, but also because Pucci was not a smoker.
“I was repulsed by [smoking] my whole life. I could not even look at an ashtray. I never even tried a cigarette,” she says.
Unfortunately, Pucci’s case is not unique: 16,000 to 24,000 non-smoking Americans die of lung cancer each year, and studies have shown that non-smoking women have a higher risk for contracting lung cancer than non-smoking men, although the reason why remains unclear. If lung cancer in non-smokers was its own type of cancer, it would rank among the top 10 most fatal cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
Spotting lung cancer can be a challenge. Although researchers are working on developing breath and blood tests, there is currently no standard method for detecting lung cancer in its early stages. In fact, most diagnoses of early lung cancer are accidental, says Albert Rizzo, MD, chief of pulmonary care at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware. Patients get computerized tomography (CT) scans for other reasons and the cancer is found in the process.
“That’s why it’s so important that there are lung cancer screenings for a high-risk person, otherwise we have no way of screening for asymptomatic people,” he says.
The typical screening method is getting annual CT scans. Those at a higher risk for lung cancer include people between the ages of 55 and 80 who have a history of smoking or lung cancer in their families. Exposure to radon gas, asbestos, chromium, nickel, and secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk, as can ethnicity and gender. White females and black males have a higher chance of contracting lung cancer than other racial groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But for those who are not high risk, seemingly nonthreatening symptoms such as Pucci’s nagging cough or back pain are often the only signs of lung cancer. This means many patients don’t visit their doctors right away, Dr. Rizzo says. By the time a patient receives a diagnosis based on symptoms, it usually means the cancer has already become fairly advanced.
“A persistent cough that can’t be explained… should prompt someone to seek attention. They should be aware that a symptom like that shouldn’t be ignored,” he adds.
Treatable – For a Limited Time
Pucci's lung cancer has the ALK gene mutation, which means an abnormal protein directs cancerous cells to divide and spread. Fortunately, the mutation can be treated with medication that blocks the protein from signaling to the cells. Unfortunately, there are currently only two drug treatments that target the ALK gene mutation, and patients develop resistance to them over time.
Pucci became resistant to the first medication in December 2014. She recently started taking the other medication, and her tumors have shrunk significantly. She expects to have another 8 to 10 months before she develops resistance to the second treatment, and hopes during that extra time researchers can find another way to target the ALK gene mutation.
In the meantime, Pucci will continue to raise lung cancer awareness (she is participating in the LUNG FORCE Walk in New York City on May 16, 2015, as the team captain of Team Jeanine) and urges women to be proactive about their lung health.
“I think that it’s not even on the radar for women,” she says. “If you have a bad cough, I wouldn’t want to alarm anyone, but you need to be an advocate for yourself.”