Throughout the month of October, breast cancer is in the spotlight. But most people don’t realize that another form of cancer is actually killing more women. According to the Free to Breathe organization, lung cancer claims more lives than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined, with approximately 158,000 lives lost in the U.S. annually.
Kathleen Fennig of Beavercreek, the chair of the 2016 Free to Breathe 5K, being held this weekend at Fifth Third Field, is a lung cancer survivor diagnosed in the early stages in 2011.
“I was asymptomatic,” Fennig said. “I knew risk because I had a history of smoking and a cousin who passed away from lung cancer at 62. And he never smoked.”
Fennig did some research and discovered that 60 percent of all new lung cancer diagnosis are people who have never smoked, but that smokers are more likely to get lung cancer, even if they had quit, as she did, years before.
“I was initially denied a (lung cancer) screen because I didn’t have symptoms,” Fennig said. “I said I had a cough just so I could get the screen.”
Fennig’s scans showed very small nodules on her lung, which could not be biopsied. Her doctor recommended she wait a few months to see if they grew in size, which would likely be a sign of cancer. After three months, the nodules had grown and a biopsy revealed her cancer.
“I had the upper and middle lobe of my lungs removed,” Fennig said. “And because there aren’t a lot of dollars going to research right now, there isn’t much out there about the need for follow up. This made me really nervous.”
Fennig was frustrated with the slow progress to find new treatment protocols and drugs for lung cancer. Especially since survival rate is only about 20 percent.
“Cancer among nonsmoking women has doubled,” she said. “There is an urgent need for more funding.”
Today, Fennig is free of cancer, but she is checked every year. She knows that without her persistence, she would likely not have been approved for the scan that revealed her cancer.
“There is currently no screening in effect for people who have never smoked,” Fennig said. “People who have smoked and have quit should be screened annually. But we don’t hear much about these guidelines.”
Fennig, along with her friends Joanne Coleman of Bellbrook and Marcia Jones of Dayton, both lung cancer survivors, are working to change this, by supporting events like “Free to Breathe” and raising awareness of the disease so that clinical research might be funded.
Coleman was diagnosed in 2014 at the age of 62. She had never smoked and had been in good health her entire life.
“I had no symptoms,” Coleman said. “Just some abdominal pain my doctor said was Irritable Bowel.”
When Coleman’s pain continued, her doctor ordered an X-ray, which revealed a spot on the back of her right lung.
“I hadn’t been sick, and was running circles around everyone at the gym,” Coleman said. “Cancer wasn’t on the radar.”
Coleman’s medical care was expedited and within two weeks she had an appointment with a pulmonologist who ordered a biopsy.
“I was shopping when they called me,” Coleman said. “They told me it was cancer and that nonsmokers are getting this more often than ever before. My whole world came crashing down.”
After surgery to remove the right lower lobe and part of the middle lobe of her lung, Coleman was released and because the cancer was stage 1A, chemotherapy and radiation were not recommended.
“It’s odd but I don’t give people a chance to ask me (how she got lung cancer) before I tell them,” Coleman said. “I am a nonsmoker and I know the stigma attached to this disease. I know most people think that lifestyle created this cancer. And that’s the reason lung cancer research is so underfunded.”
Jones went to her doctor in the summer of 2014 after a persistent cough was not getting better. Her doctor changed her blood pressure medicine but it didn’t help.
“I saw my doctor for a follow-up in January (2015) and she ordered a chest X-ray,” Jones said. “I had a biopsy and a bronchoscopy. The doctor called me a few days later and told me I had lung cancer.”
Jones was diagnosed at stage 3A and the tumor on her left upper lobe of her lung was too large to remove with surgery. Doctors ordered chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor. After two cycles of chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments, Coleman, who works at the Dayton VA Medical Center, was admitted to the hospital in early April for blood clots, a common side effect of cancer treatment. In July, she finally had surgery to remove the cancerous part of her left lung.
“I feel wonderful,” Jones, who smoked for 20 years but had quit in 1993, said. “At my follow-up appointment there was no evidence of the disease.”
Jones joins her friends at the Free to Breathe 5K this Saturday, October 22, to raise funds and also to let people know that lung cancer doesn’t always lead to a death sentence.
“We are working to double the survival rate from this disease by the year 2020,” Jones said. “I plan to be one of those survivors.”
For more information about the event this weekend, log on to www.freetobreathe.org/dayton.