On November 28, 1995, my journey with lung cancer started. I received a call from my sister Kathleen, who is a urologist, that our Dad had gone in for an x-ray to see why his back hurt. The results showed that my Dad had stage 4 lung cancer, which had metastasized to his spinal cord. My sister said that he had 6 months to live. My Dad died on May 1, 1996, 5 months and 3 days after his initial diagnosis.
My Dad was from the Greatest Generation—a World War II Navy veteran, serving in both the Atlantic and Pacific. He worked in the shipyards prior to joining the Navy in May 1942, when he was just barely 18 years old. We can only speculate what his body was exposed to during the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s when he worked in the oil industry. He also was a smoker. We all believed that his lung cancer was attributable to his smoking and his exposure to asbestos and other chemicals. Was it a combination? At the end of the day, did it really matter? All we knew was that if he hadn’t smoked, he would have had a better chance of living longer.
When cancer first strikes a family, it is a bitter and scary pill.
The first reaction is denial, then hope that together we are tough and we can beat this thing! In 1995, when my dad was diagnosed, there were no small victories; there was no beating cancer.
On March 15, 2015, lung cancer came knocking again. Kathleen went to the emergency room because she was having difficulty breathing. When her CT scan came back, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She had never smoked.
Kathleen was by all measures a fitness fanatic, running 7 miles a day in any weather. She had lost about 10 pounds before her diagnosis, but had attributed it to giving up chocolate for Lent. She had a persistent cough that winter and I joked with her that she sounded like a two-pack-a-day smoker!
The science of lung cancer research was light years ahead in 2015 versus 1995, yet the prognosis was still maddeningly grim.
Chemotherapy and radiation were the first line of defense, but were ineffective with her type of lung cancer (neuroendocrine small lung cell cancer). Kathleen was put in a study at Memorial Sloan Kettering that was using an immunotherapy regimen to treating lung cancer. The results were very encouraging.
Over the next 6 months, Kathleen regained a lot of her strength and some of her stamina. She was now walking 7 miles a day in any weather. The radiation/chemotherapy had scarred her lungs, so running was not an option. She was determined to be as cardio fit as possible. She eventually went back to work, but had to give up her surgical practice. She is now a hospital administrator at Rahway Hospital in New Jersey. Kathleen has had her share of setbacks over the last 3 years but continues to fight. Science is giving her a puncher’s chance.
On January 18, 2016, lung cancer called for a third time.
After my sister was diagnosed with lung cancer, it was suggested that Kathleen’s siblings have CT scans to test for lung cancer. We were all nonsmokers. My two brothers and other sister were fine, but my results were ambiguous. They showed a very small nodule in my upper right lobe. My cardiothoracic surgeon, Brendon Stiles, MD, ordered a biopsy of the nodule. It came back positive for adenocarcinoma.
On February 17, 2016, Dr. Stiles performed an upper right lobectomy. The tests confirmed that my lung cancer was stage 1A, which meant that after my surgery, I was considered cured! I was back at work the following Monday and ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon 3 months after my surgery.
Hopefully, my family’s painful journey with lung cancer is coming to a close. We will stay vigilant and not assume that only smokers get lung cancer.
For more information about the disease and its various treatment options, see the Lung Cancer page.
Read more about never smokers: “Never Smokers: The New Face of Lung Cancer” by Brendon M. Stiles, MD, FACS.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.