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Living with lung cancer
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DILLON - December 31, 2004 - Last spring, Pat Ferguson felt pain in her back, shoulder and rib cage. Then she became short of breath, so she went to her doctor.
He found fluid on the left side of her lung and sent her to St. Anthony's hospital in Denver for minor surgery. There, doctors discovered cancer cells in the fluid surrounding her lungs.
Since she didn't have a tumor, doctors couldn't operate to remove the cancer, like they did 21 years ago when Ferguson had colon cancer.
In August, she started chemotherapy at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers (RMCC), which provides oncology services for Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women. This year in Colorado, an estimated 1,740 people were diagnosed with lung and bronchus cancers, and an estimated 1,610 will die from lung and bronchus cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
Ferguson doesn't fall into the category of the 87 percent of lung cancer cases the American Cancer Society attributes to tobacco use. But she does fall into the statistic that doctors must commonly diagnose lung cancer in people between 55-65 years old. She will be 65 in February.
Doctors classify cancers that begin in the lungs into two major types, depending on how the cells look under a microscope. The more common form of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, usually grows and spreads relatively slowly. The second form of lung cancer, small cell lung cancer, grows and spreads much faster. Ferguson has the first form.
Though doctors haven't given a prognosis, her last PET scan, about eight weeks ago, came up better than the previous. Tuesday she has another evaluation.
Ever since she found out she had lung cancer, she has remained positive.
Once in awhile, she has down days; chemotherapy causes nausea, weakens her immune system and makes her body ache and nose run or bleed. She lost 15-20 pounds, weighing in at 97 pounds at one point, so she's working on gaining weight. She also tires easily, though she's able to work 25 hours a week at Wal-Mart and maintains a daily schedule that's "as normal as possible."
"If you could prevent lung cancer, why continue to smoke?" Ferguson said. "But I don't say this to people because we are all entitled to do what we want with our lives. We all think we're pretty invincible, like it's not going to happen to me. I don't lecture people, but I do think, 'Oh, why are you doing that, because cancer is hard.'"
Her family and coworkers have been supportive, offering rides to Edwards and any other help they can give.
"We all decided we were going to have a positive attitude," Ferguson said. "There are survivors, and I am going to be one of them."
Ferguson also puts life in perspective.
"Material things don't matter all that much; it's your friends and family that are important," she said. "Different things are important to you when you go through something like this. The spiritual part is more important to you maybe than it was prior. You realize these things happen, and you're not going to be here forever."
Meanwhile, the RMCC continues to research new cancer treatments.
"We are starting to find ways to identify who responds better to certain kinds of treatments," said Dr. Robert Jotte, medical oncologist at RMCC. "We can now perform sophisticated tests to identify what treatments will work for some of our patients."
Jotte is waiting for approval on a new drug, Tarceva, proven to be effective for advanced lung cancer patients. Doctors administer it orally rather than intravenously like traditional chemotherapy. Iressa, a drug similar to Tarceva, is already available, and tests show it shrinks tumors in 18 percent of patients and stops growth in 30 percent of patients. The newer drugs cause fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy, Jotte said.
While cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke - both first and secondhand - causes the most common risk of developing lung cancer, other risks include exposure to radon, asbestos or pollution or other lung diseases, such as tuberculosis.
Symptoms of lung cancer may be a new cough or one that gets persistently worse over time; coughing up blood; experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness; swelling of the neck and facial region; repeated illness with pneumonia or bronchitis; loss of appetite; extreme weight loss; or fatigue.
"Early detection of lung cancer is critical to improving survival," Jotte said. "Screening people known to be at high risk for developing lung cancer can help to find tumors that are small and more easily treated. Those at high risk include men and women who are 60 years of age and currently smoke or have a history of smoking. People who have had previous lung tumors or suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are also at risk."
For more information, call RMCC at (303) 563-3777 or visit its website at www.cancercolorado.org. For 24-hour cancer information, call the American Cancer Society at (800) ACS-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Docs fail to offer life-saving cancer procedure to blacks
By Jessica Heslam
December 28, 2005 - Despite having health insurance and access to specialized medical care, black Americans with a curable form of lung cancer are half as likely as white Americans to undergo surgery that could save their lives, a new study found.
Doctors were less likely to offer lung cancer surgery to black patients, researchers with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found. And black patients were slightly more likely to refuse the surgery than white patients.
While the survival rates are exactly the same for both black and white patients who undergo surgery, the problem is people arent getting the same treatment, said Dr. Christopher Lathan, a Dana-Farber oncologist and the studys lead author.
Its not just access to care, Lathan said. Theres something happening in the physician and patient communication process when a patient goes in and closes the door.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among black Americans. About 15,500 black Americans will die from lung cancer in 2005 about a quarter of all cancer deaths.
The researchers looked at the cancer registry records and insurance claims of more than 21,000 Medicare-eligible patients diagnosed with non-metastatic lung cancer from 1991 to 2001.
Of those patients, 14,224 underwent a staging procedure that allows doctors to see where the cancer has spread and determine the appropriate treatment. Black patients were 25 percent less likely than whites to have staging exams, the researchers found.
Even after having the staging procedure, only 36 percent of blacks compared to 50 percent of whites were among the 6,972 patients who went on to have surgery to remove the cancerous part of the lung.