In the spring of 2015 Newport, Virginia resident Anne Beleu felt a twinge of pain in her left side, which became persistent over a couple of months. “I thought I had pulled a muscle,” Anne says. “I had been stacking firewood with my boys, and I figured I had just overdone it.”
But when the pain didn’t go away, Beleu’s husband insisted she see a doctor. “They took a chest X-ray and found a nodule in my left lung,” Beleu says. “I was diagnosed with neuroendocrine lung carcinoid. It was Stage 4 lung cancer, which had metastasized to my bones.”
Beleu, who has since undergone treatment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Newnan, Georgia, was one of the more than 106,000 women diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. in 2015.
Lung Cancer Kills Twice the Number of Women
“Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in women, killing almost twice as many women as any other cancer, including breast cancer,” says Patricia L. Rich, MD, Director of Lung Center of Advanced Oncology and Vice Chief of Staff at CTCA®.
Yet, 98 percent of women don’t even think of lung cancer as something that can affect them, according to recently released data from the American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE Women’s Lung Health Barometer.
“Many people never even consider that lung cancer could happen to them,” says Alana Burns, National Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives at the American Lung Association. “It’s simply not on their health radar.”
Awareness and Early Detection Are Keys to Survival
To that end, LUNG FORCE, a national initiative led by the American Lung Association to unite women against lung cancer, and CTCA are partnering in a campaign called ShareYourVoice to share personal stories of those affected by the disease.
Through the ShareYourVoice campaign, which started in November and ends in May 2017, patients, survivors and family members are encouraged to share the impact of lung cancer on their lives. To share personal stories, anyone who has been impacted by lung cancer can visit LUNGFORCE.org and also use #ShareYourVoice on social media, including the LUNG FORCE Facebook page and via Twitter, or record their stories with a friend or loved one using the StoryCorps APP and tagging it with #ShareYourVoice or #lungcancer. The goal of the campaign is to encourage as many women as possible to understand their risk, recognize symptoms and speak openly with their doctors about the disease.
Awareness is key because when lung cancer is detected early survival rates more than triple, according to the American Lung Association. However, data from the Women’s Lung Health Barometer shows that less than half of women considered at high risk have spoken to their doctor about lung cancer.
Educating more women about lung cancer prevalence, risk factors, and symptoms through the #ShareYourVoice story drive will go a long way to bring this vital information to light and save women’s lives, says Burns. “It’s an act of courage to share your personal, private experience with this terrible disease. But with just one act of courage—one story—we can inspire others to consider their personal risk for lung cancer. To save lives, we need greater awareness.”
Smoking Is a Risk, But Not the Only Risk
Lung cancer was the last thing expected by avid runner and mom of three Carla Wyss, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2013, after seeing her doctor for what she thought was the flu. “After my morning run, I felt unusually run down and had some very minor chest pain,” Wyss says. “I didn’t think it was anything serious, but I went to the doctor because I was training for a race and couldn’t afford to get sick.” Otherwise, she adds, she likely would have ignored the symptoms.
At 42, the diagnosis came out of the blue for the Laredo, Texas resident. “I was shocked. I was young and lived a really healthy lifestyle,” Wyss says. “I had never smoked, and I didn’t think that lung cancer could even be a possibility.”
“While tobacco use is the greatest risk factor for lung cancer, it’s not the only cause,” says Susan Rappaport, MPH, Vice President, Research and Scientific Affairs at the American Lung Association. “Lung cancer can be caused by a combination of factors, including behavior, environment and personal genetics. For every person, those three factors come into play differently.”
The most significant risks for lung cancer include: smoking; exposure to radon, a radioactive gas that exists in soil; particle pollution (like car exhaust); breathing in hazardous chemicals like asbestos, uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and some petroleum products; and a family history of lung cancer, which may put you at a higher risk, according to the American Lung Association.
“You should talk to your doctor about potential risk, and reduce your exposure to these substances,” says Rappaport. “And, be aware that even if you were exposed to these substances many years ago, you may still be at risk for lung cancer.”
Wyss, who completed treatment at CTCA in Tulsa, Oklahoma in May 2016, is back to running 15 miles a week and hopes that by sharing her story she can “provide hope for people struggling with this disease.” The advice she wants to share includes, “Do not ignore any symptoms, no matter how minor. Get a physical each year and be open with your doctor about any persistent or recurring pain or discomfort.”
Be Aware of Subtle Symptoms
In addition to speaking openly with your doctor about your risk, Dr. Rich, of CTCA in Newnan, Georgia, recommends that women be aware of the subtle symptoms of lung cancer, which can often go undetected. “The most common symptoms of lung cancer are a cough that does not go away and may increase with time, hoarseness, unintentional weight loss, increasing shortness of breath and coughing up blood,” says Dr. Rich. “If you have symptoms, be sure to discuss these symptoms with your doctor. Your doctor may recommend a chest X-ray; or, if you are at risk, he or she may recommend screening with a low-dose CT scan of the chest.”
Misty Bergner, of Valparaiso, Indiana, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015 at age 35, says she wishes she had been more aware of the possibility that her symptoms—which included a lingering cough and fatigue—might indicate lung cancer. As a smoker, awareness of symptoms might have led to earlier testing, she says. “I was initially diagnosed with laryngitis and bronchitis before I had a chest X-ray,” she says. “If you’re a smoker, or if lung cancer is in your family, be vigilant and talk to your doctor about screening.”
After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy at CTCA in Zion, Illinois, Bergner is feeling well and excited to share her experiences to help other women. “I feel good about being invited to share my story and help other people. If I can help even one person, that’s awesome.” Read Misty Bergner’s full story here.
If you have been impacted by lung cancer as a patient, caregiver or family member, Cancer Fighters Thrive encourages you to SHARE YOUR STORY.