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Lung cancer came as a shock to non-smoker

By KIMBERLEY HAAS\
Union Leader Correspondent

November 07. 2017 1:02AM

Deborah Smith and her son, Dylan, visited the Shelburne Museum in Vermont in October 2016, five years after she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The Hampton woman says she is lucky to be alive. (Courtesy Photo)

Deborah Smith has never been a smoker, but in the week of her 58th birthday, she found out she had lung cancer.

Smith, who lives in Hampton, said she had shortness of breath, was wheezing and suffered from a cough for almost a year prior to her diagnosis. She was being treated for asthma when she asked to speak to an allergist.

“The allergist was the doctor who sent me for a chest X-ray,” Smith said on Friday. “There was a mass in my right lung.”

It was August 2011. Smith went to a pulmonary doctor who took samples; she soon found out the cancer had spread. She had a lesion in her hip and doctors told her cancer was in her lymph nodes.

Smith was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Untreated, it means an average life expectancy of about eight months and a five-year survival rate of 1 percent.

“I really didn’t think I would see Christmas,” Smith said.

Smith started participating in clinical trials at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She went through three rounds of treatments. She said doctors found a drug that worked, Tagrisso.

At her last scan in August, Smith was clear of any signs of the disease.

“I was very lucky,” Smith said. “If you have some symptoms, you should get checked, even if you’re not a smoker.”

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

Experts say lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in the United States, taking the lives of more people each year than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.

According to a brief issued by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 1,140 people were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016, leading to about 770 deaths.

Smoking is the number-one risk factor for lung cancer. Radon exposure is the second leading cause.

Homes in New Hampshire are four times as likely to have elevated levels of radon compared with other homes in the United States, according to the brief.

Lance Boucher, a director of public policy for the American Lung Association, said that 426 people die in the United States every day from lung cancer.

Two-thirds of the people who are diagnosed never smoked, or quit smoking years prior to their diagnosis, Boucher said.

Boucher said the American Lung Association is working with New Hampshire legislators to create an environment in which fewer people develop and die from lung cancer. He said the state needs more access to smoking cessation programs, higher taxes on tobacco products and strong smoke-free air programs with no loopholes.

As an example of a loophole, Boucher said that under state law, smoking is permitted in many workplaces and smoking rooms still exist for employees.

In addition, the American Lung Association is working on state legislation that would require the installation of radon removal systems in all new home construction.

Get screened, quit smoking

The biggest message from New Hampshire health experts is to get screened and quit smoking.

Doctors are encouraging anyone who is at high risk for lung cancer to ask about a low-dose CT scan if they are between the ages of 55 and 75.

Dr. William Black, a professor of radiology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, said historically doctors couldn’t detect lung cancer until it was advanced. Often the patient came in because they were coughing up blood or had an extreme weight loss.

Now, doctors can see changes to the lungs when nodules are just 2 millimeters. Black said nodules that small are monitored every six months.

Black said in his experience, the biggest risk factors for patients are age and smoking history.

“If you’re currently smoking, stop smoking and make sure you don’t start smoking again,” Black said.


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