In early 2019, Leah visited her doctor because she had a nagging cough that she couldn’t shake. Her doctor diagnosed her with a post viral cough and exercise-induced asthma. When steroids and other medications did not cure the problem, and with Leah beginning to display other symptoms including pain on her right side, she insisted they do a chest X-Ray. Sure enough, the X-Ray showed she had right lung consolidation, suggesting pneumonia. Unfortunately, after about a week on the pneumonia medication, she began coughing up blood. It would take another three weeks of pain and coughing before an emergency room doctor finally was able to diagnose the problem: metastatic cancer.
Leah had led a very healthy life; she was a runner who ate very healthily and never smoked. So, her recent lung problems and subsequent diagnosis were hard to process. “I was shocked. Previous doctors had assured me it wasn’t cancer so I didn’t understand how this could be,” Leah said. Draining the lung of fluid and testing it was the best way for the doctors to be sure of the diagnosis, and so that is what they did. When the fluid came back malignant a bone biopsy was required to determine where the cancer had originated. The test showed that it was adenocarcinoma of the lung, indicating non-small cell stage IV lung cancer. Further testing, a biopsy of the primary tumor, determined that Leah had the EGFR exon 19 deletion mutation.
The doctor put Leah on a targeted therapy specific to her biomarker. This medication made a great deal of difference and within three months, Leah’s cough had subsided. After nine months on the medication, her scans showed that the tumor in her right lung had shrunk by 70%. More tests revealed that the cancer that had metastasized to her spine and pelvis was also being healed. At only 43 years old with three young children, Leah knew that this was a good sign, and it was time to get aggressive. The doctor suggested SBRT treatment, which is a very hostile form of radiation. The treatment has allowed Leah to move into a stable state, with no new metastases or tumors since then her initial diagnosis in December 2019.
Making Sense of an Unthinkable Diagnosis
“When they said lung cancer you could have knocked us over with a feather,” Leah recalls “It didn’t even seem in the realm of possibilities because I have led a healthy life and my family had no history of lung cancer.” As a teacher, she had never considered that she may be at risk from toxic chemicals either.
“They had no explanation why the gene had stopped working and allowed the cancer cells to grow.” Her current doctor had some idea of what might have happened. “My doctor said that, though she couldn’t be 100% sure, recent research made her confident enough to suggest that radon was the cause,” she said. Leah’s doctor went on to explain that Kentucky (where Leah lived), was a state with one of the highest levels of radon exposure in the country. Studies have proven that the damage from exposure to radioactive radon gas may not show up until later in life. In Leah’s case, her exposure to radon had caused the EGFR exon 19 gene to fail.
Leah immediately had her home and her parents’ home tested. They found radon levels to be not far above the EPA action level. When they decided to build a new house, they had a radon mitigation system put in. But her doctor brought up the sobering fact that radon was sneaky and odorless. It could have been in high levels in her dorm room in college or apartments she lived in before she was married. Even more distressing, radon could have been present at high levels in the school building where she worked.
She knew she needed to do something to prevent others from receiving a similar diagnosis. “I have been sharing my story on the local news and even been in commercials for a radon mitigation company. I want everyone to know what they need to test their houses, schools and businesses for radon. You never know how you might be exposed,” Leah said.
Radon testing is not mandatory when you buy and sell a home or commercial building in all states, and Leah believes this needs to change. “Hundreds of thousands of people are exposed to radon every day and don't even know it in the places where we are supposed to feel safe, like our homes, our schools, our businesses. We send our kids there, worried for their safety, but we don’t think about radon which can be deadly. So, there needs to be more awareness about the need for radon testing and not just in homes,” she said.
Find out more about radon and how to get your home tested at Lung.org/radon.
Blog last updated: August 22, 2023