When I was diagnosed with advanced Stage 4 Lung Cancer (EGFR mutation) in November 2016, the future looked bleak given the very depressing statistics of this disease. Never having ever smoked and having always enjoyed excellent health, the diagnosis of a lung tumor and advanced non-small-cell cancer that had spread outside of the lung was nightmarish and hard to accept.
When panic finally turned to calm, the first thing I realized was that I knew almost nothing about lung cancer, other than that it was a smoker's disease and that it had high mortality rates. Since then, I have learned some astounding facts, starting with the prevalence of lung cancer among non-smokers. Over 60% of new lung cancer cases today are either non-smokers or former smokers and as many as 20% of the people who die from lung cancer in the United States every year are non-smokers – that's about 16,000 to 24,000 Americans every year. According to the American Cancer Society, if lung cancer in non-smokers had its own separate category, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States!
Next, the genetic factor, especially for people of Asian descent, like me. While radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas that comes from the ground), secondhand smoke, air pollution, and asbestos are all factors that could contribute to non-smoker lung cancer, genetic mutations are significant. Another startling statistic is the lung cancer death rate in women, which has more than doubled over the past 35 years. According to one estimate, every five minutes, a mother, daughter, wife or sister will be told she has lung cancer. One year later, fewer than half of these women will be alive.
While the overall prognosis for lung cancer is quite dismal and a cure might elude medical researchers for years to come, there's hope today because more and more we're hearing doctors speak of it not so much as a death sentence but as a manageable chronic disease. There are numerous clinical trials going on to improve "targeted therapies" which could seek out and destroy cancer cells with greater precision.
The biggest obstacle to such advances is, of course, funding. While lung cancer kills more people than breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined, less money is spent on lung cancer research than most other cancers. This step-motherly treatment is attributed largely to the stigmatization that lung cancer is brought on by lifestyle choices: they wouldn't be sick if they didn't smoke. Clearly, lung cancer has an "image problem" that needs to be corrected and it is important to create greater awareness of this deadly disease. Taking the lead in this effort is the American Lung Association (ALA) which for 110 years has saved lives with its dedication to lung health and preventing lung disease, through research, education and advocacy. Among ALA's notable initiatives is Lung Force, a nationwide movement which is making great strides in raising awareness of the disease as a leading killer of women.
As one of the participants in Lung Force's annual Lung Cancer Awareness Walk held in Studio City in November 2017, I was amazed at the tremendous enthusiasm of the hundreds who turned up to show support for the initiative. Being among other survivors and their friends and families, including those who were honoring their late loved ones, was especially touching. The road ahead is definitely long and difficult but it's reassuring to know there are others walking beside you.