Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

One Of The Sixteen Percent

"It didn't make sense to me that a 26-year-old, healthy non-smoker could get lung cancer."
"It was very traumatizing [initial hopeless diagnosis]."
"I want to help change the face of lung cancer. There is a stigma that it is only a smokers' disease. That is not the case -- young lung cancer is on the rise, and we need funding for research to figure out why this is happening."
Elizabeth Dessureault, Ottawa
Elizabeth Desserault, who has never smoked, was five months pregnant when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Elizabeth Dessureault, who has never smoked, was five months pregnant when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen
"With breast cancer, there are a lot of young survivors who are outspoken, intelligent and of the right socioeconomic background to be able to advocate."
"With lung cancer, that is not terribly common [most lung cancer patients are older, ill, tobacco-addicted]. There are not a lot of people like Elizabeth out there."
Dr. Scott Laurie, oncologist
Smoking is undeniably the leading cause of lung cancer. It's a well-known fact. What is not known at all, however, is that new patients are presenting with lung cancer who have never smoked. They are healthy and they are young and there appears to be no reason why they should have been afflicted with a disease known to be largely of environmental origin through a habitual self-harming practise by people who become hooked to tobacco.

Lung Cancer Canada describes their perturbation over lack of attention to this phenomenon as opposed to other types of cancer; breast cancer for example, that receive a lot of attention and public support, translating in publicity and group efforts to raise funds for breast cancer research. In comparison, lung cancer research languishes for lack of funding on a comparative basis.

And this, at a time, should the trend continue, when research to understand why young and healthy people become vulnerable to lung cancer is a required fundamental in attempting to grapple with the phenomenon.

At the present time, there is an abysmally low research investment in the recognized varied causes of lung cancer, and in alerting the medical profession to its presence in the young and the healthy-fit whose lifestyle habits do not include an addiction to tobacco. The case of non-smoker Elizabeth Dessureault is a reflection of the low priority to funding that research and the lack of alertness in diagnosing lung cancer in people like her.

She was a Grade 9 teacher, her husband an RCMP officer, living in Fort McMurray, Alberta, looking forward to welcoming their first child. In early pregnancy she and her husband planned for an evening out when she coughed up blood, and that alarming event prodded them to go directly to their local hospital. There she was diagnosed with pneumonia initially, but a follow-up X-ray revealed a tumour, not pneumonia; a tumour that had already spread.

She was referred to a surgeon in Edmonton who advised her that she would have to accept the fact that she had incurable cancer. She decided to return to Ottawa to be closer to her family where she had been raised, and was seen by Dr. Scott Laurie, an oncologist specializing in lung cancer who began chemotherapy for her, despite her pregnancy. Her delivery was induced at 32 weeks, and once that was done, her treatment was intensified.

The tumour in her lung had spread to her chest, lymph nodes and centrally in her chest cavity; too large for radiation. The chemotherapy succeeded in shrinking the tumour sufficiently that radiation was to follow. The tumour sample was sent for analysis to the U.S. That genetic testing revealed there was a rare genetic marker in her cancer. Leading her doctor to prescribe a newly available drug instead of radiation, that succeeded in shrinking the tumours over 50 percent.

The drug, Xalkori, comes with virtually no side-effects, allowing Elizabeth to remain at home to care for her baby. Though the drug is not a cure it does make life tolerable for many patients sharing the genetic mutation named ROS1; roughly one percent of patients having this form of lung cancer. The costly genetic testing, and the drug are not paid for through universal medicare. The thousands in the cost of the drug do not fall under the provincial health plan.

Key statistics.

  • The primary CAUSE of lung cancer is smoking; radon is the leading cause of cancer in non-smokers. Up to 16% of people with lung cancer never smoked a day in their lives.
  • Doctors estimate that the smoker's high RISK FOR LUNG CANCER IS LOWERED TO ALMOST NORMAL just 10 years after he or she stops.
  • Finding lung cancer at the earliest, most curable stage is difficult. There MAY BE NO SYMPTOMS IN THE BEGINNING to warn a person to see a doctor.
  • Signs which suggest something's wrong - A CHRONIC COUGH, WHEEZING, CHEST PAINS, COUGHING UP BLOOD - which can also occur in other chest diseases.
  • Lung cancer can be TREATED IN THREE WAYS: surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
The Lung Association, Ontario

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