For more than 20 years, my husband Alan has participated in the Autumn Escape Bike Trek, the American Lung Association’s three-day cycling fundraiser that begins in Plymouth, MA and ends in Cape Cod. As a fair-weather biker, I would sometimes drive to the Cape to join him and fellow cyclists for dinner during the second night of the event. One year, I had the chance to meet a really nice group of people including a bunch of teachers from Chelsea, Massachusetts, one of whom was Walter, an interesting person and a colorful personality. Soon after I met him, Walter developed a cough, found out he had lung cancer, and died within months. His cycling friends and colleagues coalesced to form a Trek team, "Walter's Wheeler's", and they ride annually in his honor.
The next year a very close friend, my roommate from medical school, developed lung cancer in an area that had been previously radiated for breast cancer. This was very distressing to me but served as a huge motivation to join the Wheelers and ride in the trek to support and celebrate her. As I rode, however bad the conditions were, I kept thinking to myself that nothing I was facing on the bike ride was as difficult as the challenges she was enduring.
I didn’t ride in 2014 because of work issues, but I did go to the trek to support the team, and while there, heard about the Lung Association’s new initiative called LUNG FORCE. Even as a physician, I was surprised to learn that more women died each year from lung cancer than from other cancers and that 20 percent, or one and five, were non-smokers. As I was listening to this presentation, a thought flitted through my mind: "I'm grateful I’m not one of those women with lung cancer", and then a second thought came into my mind: "I HOPE I’m not one of those women." These thoughts arose because I had been undergoing chest CT surveillance for some strange little fluffy lesions called ground glass opacities, or GGOs, that had been discovered on a CT scan about three years prior. Even as a physician, I didn’t really know much about GGOs: I learned they could be little inflammatory blobs of clinical or nonclinical significance, or they could represent precancerous cells lining the air sacs, or they could be scattered localized lung cancers. This information was totally unhelpful. Even though quite skeptical, I went along with the suggestion to just get follow-up CT scans to see if anything would develop. In October of 2015, I went to the appointment following my usual yearly CT, was informed that two of the little fluffys had grown, one in each lung, and changed in appearance, suggesting they were lung cancers. Now I had to do something. I couldn’t believe it; how ironic, that I, a non-smoking environmental/occupational medicine physician who has participated in Lung Association bike treks, should now find myself dealing with lung cancer. I underwent my first surgery early in December, 2015 and had another in February, 2016. I was very lucky to get through both surgeries without any serious complications. The lesions did turn out to be localized adenocarcinomas, a form of lung cancer, and neither had fortunately spread.
I feel very grateful and fortunate on so many counts. I am thankful to have such a wonderful support system in my family, and especially my husband, and my friends and colleagues who were incredibly helpful during my recovery. I am also so thankful to advances in medical care and chest surgery. I began to speak out and spread awareness before even leaving the hospital: I made an educational pitch about women and lung cancer and about LUNG FORCE, giving out pins and bracelets to all the members of my hospital team!
It is critical that we raise and dedicate funding to learn more about what causes lung cancer, particularly potential environmental factors, and then support the education and advocacy necessary to reduce those factors.