Tag Archives: never smokers and lung cancer

Twelve. And counting.


Twelve years ago today I was forty five years old, my youngest child was seven and I was sitting in a hospital bed. I’d been admitted four days earlier after several weeks of antibiotics for a walking pneumonia that just wouldn’t clear up. A CT scan the previous Monday had revealed a large mass in the lower lobe of my left lung and the differential diagnosis was recalcitrant pneumonia, fungal infection or a neoplasm.

I didn’t know what a neoplasm was but my husband’s face had fallen when my general practitioner spoke that word. After she left the room he explained that it was another word for cancer. We’d then driven directly to the local hospital where I was placed on IV antibiotics.

Those first days were awful. I was in a room with three other woman, one of whom was dying and another who’d had a severe asthma attack. As I lay in bed I worked incessantly on my laptop researching everything I could about lung cancer. One thing stood out–the dismal five year survival statistics–15%.

The day of my biopsy the patient before me was a prisoner, handcuffed to his wheelchair and accompanied by two officers. When my turn came the surgeon performing the procedure told me that it was highly unlikely that I, a young never smoker, would have lung cancer and that what he was seeing on the CT scanner looked like a fungal infection.

After the biopsy I had to lay very still for several hours without speaking so as to minimize the chances of a pneumothorax. This was difficult as one of the attendants was someone I casually knew, and she kept asking me questions. My lung did partially collapse, as it now has every single time I’ve had a biopsy.

On Thursday morning my doctor came to my room first thing. My husband hadn’t arrived yet and she stalled, telling me a protracted story about her daughter and some dramatic production that featured a field of sunflowers. She said “You know, a sunflower represents hope.”

When my husband entered the room my doctor got right to the point. “I’m sorry but you have lung cancer.”

I really don’t remember anything she said after that as both my vision and my hearing seemed to have suddenly constricted. I had this sensation that I was in an airplane and it was going down. My husband would end up having to call my family members–I was simply too devastated to speak to anyone.

However something incredibly fortunate happened later that day, something that changed everything.

I was assigned an oncologist, who spoke to me only briefly. That evening my husband called him with a question and this oncologist was incredibly rude. We decided that he was not someone to whom I would like to trust my care. And so my husband immediately called one of my dearest friends, whose husband was a surgeon, asking for their opinion as to a good doctor.

Her husband had done his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, and he gave us the name of the thoracic surgeon he had worked under. And that is how I ended up at a major research center rather than a local hospital. Because of one rude oncologist. To whom I actually now owe a thank you.



Alta, yet another of my INSPIRE friends, speaks of the importance of listening to one’s body. A delayed diagnosis is a common scenario in lung cancer, and for never smokers, tell tale symptoms such as a chronic cough are generally attributed to benign causes. Alta urges everyone to become their own advocate:

When complete silence surrounds me I detect a humming sound coming out of my chest cavity. This reassuring high pitch wheezing is a constant reminder that my lungs are still functioning. They started this musical whistling duet about two and a half years ago. From time to time the palpitation of my pounding heartbeat merges with the duo, which adds tempo to my organ’s musical talent. We are all guilty of forgetting how vital our lung function is; then the silence of their fine tuning gets damaged and we remember. A noisy interruption in their muted function is similar to the loud sound a siren makes announcing the arrival of a dangerous storm. We then have the choice to either cover our ears until the warning goes away or do something about it immediately. A simple examination by a doctor will frequently but not always help you distinguish whether you have a minor case of bronchitis or something more serious. Lung disease does not discriminate; no one is spared from any respiratory endangerment; even those who do not smoke or have never smoked.

For quite a few years I chose to ignore the warning signs and as long as it didn’t stop me from enjoying my early morning runs; why worry? With time the elusive little cough had all grown up and began to rudely interrupt my discussions and to slow down my exercise routine. Neglecting what is important in life isn’t a trait I have in my personality. I rarely ever missed my annual medical exam and in spite of my children’s occasional disappointments; I always prepared wholesome meals. Nonetheless, I was so busy caring for my family’s welfare that my own sometimes went unnoticed. Cigarettes never tempted me and I have always been diligent in maintaining a healthy existence. There was no plausible reason for my doctor to suspect that my tenacious cough was life threatening; subsequently, I was misdiagnosed from 2007 until 2010, when I finally demanded a chest x-ray.

After the Pulmonary Specialist read my questionable chest x-ray; he immediately asked me to have a Thoracic CT scan done which was followed by a PET scan: Per the Specialist’s request Tom and I went to see him the day after the PET scan was done. The doctor sat down directly across where I was sitting, took a glance at my husband Tom, look at me and said with a soft stern voice:

“Alta, you have lung cancer.”

The sound of the warning siren was so loud I became deaf to every word that was said after that.

I was referred to a Thoracic Surgeon and on August 19, 2010, at 8:00 in the morning the surgery was scheduled. I had a Thoracotomy/Lobectomy of my upper right lung and during the surgery the doctor had no choice but to break and spread two of my ribs. I have a concave shaped rib cage; “concave” meaning it turns inward versus turning outward; which made the surgery a complicated one. Nearly three hours later a two centimeter Bronchioloalveolar Carcinoma Non-Small Cell lung tumor was removed along with my whole upper right lobe. The lymph nodes surrounding the cancer area were taken out as well, which was a good thing because a minimum of A-typical (pre-cancerous) cells were found after the biopsy.

The day of my surgery I woke up lying on a hospital bed in the ICU; two plastic draining tubes were protruding out of my operated rib cage; an intravenous needle was inserted and taped on top of my right hand administering morphine and another needle was located in the fold on my left arm providing antibiotics. A lumbar epidural catheter was embedded near my spinal cord between the shoulder blades injecting an anesthesia from a plastic pouch. Two more small plastic tubes were placed in my nostrils passing oxygen through my lungs. I swallowed a powerful pain killer every three hours and even though all these precautions were taken; unless I was knocked out with a sleeping agent, I still felt an excruciating pain racing through my body. This physical state lasted for seven days and eight nights. At the end of my hospital stay and still paralyzed with pain; I felt a thin stream of tears flowing down my cheeks and I thought, “I should have had a chest x-ray sooner. Why didn’t I get an x-ray?” I don’t know if my life has been extended by the painful trials I’ve been through: I just wish I had listened to all the warning signs my “subtle little cough” was revealing more attentively.

Please broadcast the importance of an early chest x-ray screening. It takes very little time and who knows; it may spare you from years of physical trauma and a lifetime of worries.