Each year, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined, yet it receives the least amount of federal funding than any other cancer. Six percent to be exact. The reason? It is almost always associated with people who smoke or who have smoked, therefore, you did it to yourself and you deserve it. I’m here to change that stigma.
I'm 37 years old. I've never smoked a cigarette in my life. I CrossFit 5-6 days a week. I can squat twice my body weight. I can put 200 pounds over my head. I've run half marathons. I’ve hiked in altitudes well above 10,000 feet. Being in prime physical shape still wasn't enough to prevent me from getting lung cancer but it may have easily helped me recognize the symptoms. When I started to have breathing issues during workouts, I never thought it could be lung cancer.
Those breathing issues began in mid-July of 2021. It started out as a small dry cough and developed into shortness of breath upon exertion. It wasn’t anything I was too concerned about as I had been diagnosed with sports induced asthma and Dyspnea as a teenager. However, those factors never really had a major impact on me. I tested negative for COVID-19, so I thought it was a summer cold or a lingering allergy. After a couple of weeks, those issues were not going away. I tried over the counter quick fixes like cough medicine and allergy meds which would suppress the cough briefly but didn’t eradicate the symptoms. It wasn't until a workout in August where the shortness of breath hit its peak. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My mind starting swirling among factors that made sense, poor air quality, maybe my cardio was out of shape, an unknown allergy, anything that could be easily fixed.
When it happened again a few days later, I knew it was more and that it was bigger than me. The following week, I made an appointment with my PCP. During that visit, she thought from the symptoms it was worsening asthma and prescribed me an inhaler to use once every morning. She also scheduled a chest Xray to be safe. That's when my world turned upside down. The Xray showed a small lump blocking my airway along with innumerable nodules throughout both lungs. The possibility of cancer was on the table but given my history, it didn’t seem like my best bet as a diagnosis from my PCP or pulmonologist. After several blood tests, CT scans, pet scan and a bronchoscopy, the results remained inconclusive. At this point in testing, a fungal infection seemed the most reasonable. However there still wasn’t enough data to take cancer off the table. The next step in testing was a CT guided Lung Biopsy.
A long two days later, I was diagnosed. Adenocarcinoma. Non-small cell Lung cancer. At 37 years old and what I thought was the healthiest time in my life not only physical but mentally, I was rocked to my core with questions, fright, and more questions. I don't know how it was even possible. I still don’t. I assumed this thing was caught early enough until I was told it was advanced cancer. Stage 4 because the cancer was in both lungs.
Lung cancer is so dangerous because before you show any signs or symptoms, its usually spread to another part of your body. As a young and healthy never smoker, there is zero early screening for people like me. There is an unexplainable rising number of new lung cancer diagnoses in nonsmokers. Especially nonsmoking young women. We need funding and research like every other cancer, and we need it now. I will remain hopeful because of the research that has been done so far and has put me on a targeted therapy that is extending my life, but it is far from enough.
I will continue to advocate for lung cancer research and early screening for as long as I am here. We need to show ALL faces of lung cancer and not just the faces people expect to see.