Lung Cancer Patients Fight Stigma As More Non-smokers Are Diagnosed

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Statistics show nearly one in five people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked

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Terry Morey was surprised to find himself breathless one day in 2013 as he was walking around his land near Cochrane.

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The 74-year-old had just returned from a trip to Europe and assumed he caught a virus on the way. He went to his doctor for antibiotics, but his doctor also scheduled an x-ray to get a better idea of ​​what was going on.

When the x-ray results returned, Morey was advised to go to the emergency room immediately due to the presence of fluid in his lungs. This emergency room visit led to a biopsy and a diagnosis of lung cancer. At the time, Morey had six to 18 months to live.

Morey had two forms of chemotherapy for several years, but his doctor then offered him the option to try a new class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, or TKIs.

“A biomarker was found on my tumor cells, and this biomarker led to the use of a pill that I could take orally,” he explained.

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The first drug he tried, Crizotinib, targeted proteins specific to his cancer cells, inhibiting the growth and sometimes even shrinking of tumors.

He has since switched to another TKI drug called Alectinib, which works the same way. He takes the drug daily, instead of undergoing more debilitating chemotherapy treatments.

The breakthrough in TKI means Terry can treat his cancer more like a chronic disease. He said that aside from minor side effects from the drugs and shortness of breath, he and his wife Joyce have been able to continue to lead relatively normal lives for eight years since his diagnosis.

“Right now, we would be in California if it hadn’t been for COVID,” Morey said. ” We live. We try to continue a way of life.

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The only time he has said he feels anxious is to wait in the doctor’s office for the results of his quarterly scans, which luckily have continued to show the cancer remains stable and under control.

The only thing I don’t do is walk around saying, “Poor me, I’m dying of lung cancer,” Morey said. “It’s not me. I’m glad it wasn’t me.

Sadly, Morey’s story remains the exception rather than the rule when it comes to lung cancer. It is the deadliest form of cancer in Canada according to data from the Canadian Cancer Society, killing approximately 21,200 Canadians in 2020 and accounting for a quarter of all cancer deaths in the country.

Despite these numbers, lung cancer also receives only a small share of cancer research funding in Canada – around six percent – according to Emi Bossio, Lung Cancer Canada board member and cancer survivor. lung.

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She is sure that part of this funding gap is related to the stigma surrounding smoking.

A billboard on Highway 2 in Alberta is meant to remind Albertans that even non-smokers can be diagnosed with lung cancer.
A billboard on Highway 2 in Alberta is meant to remind Albertans that even non-smokers can be diagnosed with lung cancer. Photo by Submitted

“For some reason there’s this stigma of smoking and lung cancer and we can’t seem to shake it,” Bossio said. “The problem is, it really has an impact on people’s lives because research is so essential to find these drugs that are absolutely transforming people’s lives.”

Although the majority of lung cancer patients are current or former smokers, things like radon and exposure to pollutants can also cause the disease. Bossio said the number of non-smokers with lung cancer is increasing. Almost one in five Canadian patients with lung cancer has never smoked. Bossio and Terry Morey both belong to this non-smoking group.

Bossio said that by attending a lung cancer conference last year, she and four other Albertans began discussing ways to raise awareness about the disease and encourage people to advocate for screening if they suspect there is a problem with their lungs.

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“Each of us in this group has been told by our doctors that you cannot have lung cancer because you don’t smoke,” she said.

One of the things they did was buy a billboard on route 2 in Alberta. He said, “If you have lungs you can get lung cancer. He also directs people to the Lung Cancer Canada website where they posted hopeful stories about people like Terry Morey beating the odds with new drugs.

Bossio said hope is important for people with cancer. She just hopes to see more money spent on research into the disease.

“The statistics are not great, but there is so much hope because so much has changed,” she said.

[email protected]

Twitter: @brodie_thomas

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