Five Things I’ve Learned About Lung Cancer (LinkedIn Cross-Post)

[This is a cross-post of my first post as a LinkedIn “Influencer.” If you dare, you can read the 140+ comments there, but they are about what you’d expect.]

In January, my wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. This was as shocking as it sounds. My wife is a 41 year old never-smoker vegetarian fitness instructor in otherwise excellent health. How could someone like her could get lung cancer?

Like most people, I didn’t know much about lung cancer before it hit home. Here are some of the key points I’ve since learned about lung cancer:

1) Non-smokers get lung cancer. Lots of them. You’ve seen the ads linking smoking and lung cancer. Like you, I assumed that meant only smokers got lung cancer. Instead, lots of non- and never-smoking Americans get lung cancer every year. Over 200,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer every year, and about 20% of those never smoked. That means tens of thousands of American never-smokers get lung cancer every year.

2) Young women get lung cancer. Too many of them. My wife’s demographics are not unique among lung cancer patients. For unexplained reasons, lung cancer is striking younger women at increasing rates. Lung cancer among younger women is one of the most disturbing epidemics you haven’t heard of. It’s silently depleting a generation of women at their peaks.

3) Everyone wants a explanation. When I tell people that my wife has lung cancer, people often ask questions seeking some explanation for how it happened. Was it second-hand smoke? Radon? Genetics? Surely there must be a logical reason why my wife got such an unexpected disease. Unfortunately, we have no explanation except that sometimes bad things happen to good people.

4) Survival rates are abysmal. Lung cancer is an efficient killer. It’s the #1 most lethal cancer by far.

[Percent of deaths due to specific types of cancer, based on 2012 data for all Americans. Source: International Agency for Research on Cancer].

Five-year survival rates for all lung cancer patients are around 16%. (Contrast breast cancer’s 90% survival rate). For patients with advanced lung cancer, five-year survival rates are de minimis.

Why is lung cancer so lethal? First, lung cancer is often detected late. The most common symptom, a persistent cough, is easily overlooked or misdiagnosed. Second, lung cancer metastasizes easily, so it often turns into an even-harder-to-treat cancer like brain cancer. Third, advanced lung cancer is difficult or impossible to eradicate. Even if a patient with advanced lung cancer gets back a clean CT or PET scan, the lungs likely still contain cancer fragments too small to see. Fourth, lung cancer mutates a lot. The mutations mean a treatment will lose its effectiveness (often within a year or less), and the patient must then try a different treatment. At some point, there are no other treatment options to try.

5) Cancer management isn’t a “cure.” Various chemotherapies and targeted gene therapies can create windows of time where a lung cancer patient can live something resembling a normal life. To outsiders, this may look like the patient is “cured.” Instead, it’s just that the current drug treatment has brought a temporary normalcy–a calm period that will be eventually trumped by unpreventable mutations or metastizations.

BONUS: One more thing I’ve learned: The world is filled with incredibly kind people. Since we’ve announced my wife’s diagnosis, we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of others. Each day brings a new example of people going out of their way to support us. Gossip and the media often draw our attention to our society’s incivility, but unfortunately we let that overshadow the many acts of kindness by the true heroes who quietly make the world a better place.

My wife is blogging about her experiences with lung cancer. Check out “Every Breath I Take.”

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