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The Face of Lung Cancer is Not Always What You Expect


When you think of someone with lung cancer, the first image that comes to mind is most likely an older man who smoked his entire adulthood. But lung cancer isn’t as discriminating as we would like to think.

“You think of it as a something that happens to older people, smokers. Not someone who eats right and works out. Not a 30-something mom with two kids,” says one Weill Cornell Medicine patient.

But that’s exactly what happened to Johanna, who was 39 at the time of her diagnosis. “There was such a feeling of ‘this can’t be happening.’ It was a shock,” she exclaims. “Even my primary care doctor was surprised. I don’t look like a lung cancer patient!”

Dr. Brendon Stiles, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Weill Cornell Medicine, says that many of his patients today are “never smokers” and often in good health otherwise. The truth is that we don’t yet understand what causes different types of lung cancer. It can affect any of us.

A Surprising Diagnosis

Wendy, a private banker and wealth advisor in Westchester County, was the picture of health. She went to the gym regularly, never smoked, and was never around those who smoked. Understandably, lung cancer wasn’t on her mind when she began participating in a medical research program for heart health (her mother had recently suffered a heart attack). During a chest scan for the study, a nodule was discovered.

MaryAnn was a similar case. She was in her mid-40s, never smoked, kept fit, and didn’t have any family history of lung cancer. But when she was diagnosed with adult asthma in one lung and began having breathing issues, she became concerned. She made an appointment with her doctor and pushed for a chest x-ray. Before she had even left the clinic, her doctor called to say she had a mass. “Of all the cancers, lung cancer was the last kind I thought I could get,” she admits. “I don’t fit the picture of a lung cancer patient.”

Even when there are seemingly obvious causes, the disease continues to behave in unpredictable ways.

Eve smoked regularly when she was young and even though she had quit several years ago, she requested a routine chest x-ray from her primary care physician. She had early stage lung cancer. Her kids joke that smoking probably saved her life because her doctor may not have done a chest x-ray if she had never been a smoker.

Tom had a strong family history of lung cancer, but he was an active marathon runner and “never felt sick.” Nevertheless, his physician encouraged him to be examined.  A small nodule was discovered, which eventually turned out to be lung cancer. Despite the family connection, however, it turned out that all three members of Tom’s family had unrelated types of lung cancer.

Each of these patients was surprised by the diagnosis. They had a preconceived idea of lung cancer; they never believed it could happen to them. They have since learned, as Johanna puts it, “you only need a pair of lungs to get lung cancer. It doesn’t discriminate. It’s random.”

Confronting the Stigma

Fortunately, these patients can all now call themselves lung cancer “survivors.” For them, early diagnosis and fast action saved their lives.

Though now free of cancer-, they have not been able to shed the stigma attached to lung cancer. “There is a weird reaction when you tell someone you have lung cancer,” says Johanna. “Those who know me well are shocked because I look healthy.”

At a recent reunion, Tom had the same kind of response from his friends, “I told them that I had had lung cancer. It was as if I had hit them,” he describes. “It is a shock to people because I don’t look like a lung cancer survivor.”

Johanna believes much of the stigma is “because people are just not aware of all the causes and types of lung cancer.” Dr. Stiles hopes that through conversation and advocacy, this can be changed.

Helping to Change Perception

Dr. Stiles has dedicated his life not only to helping his patients as a surgeon, but also to advocating for continued research and greater public awareness. He hopes to dispel some of the misconceptions about the disease. Many of his patients have since joined his efforts.

Encouraged by Dr. Stiles’ passion, Wendy took part in a lecture to Cornell medical students about lung cancer (even medical professionals need to be taught that lung cancer does not happen only to smokers). She has also participated in fundraising events for lung cancer research that Dr. Stiles supports.

Eve, too, has attended and spoken at such events, where she is continually reminded that lung cancer can strike anywhere. At one event, she found most of the people sitting at her table were never-smokers, and many were in their 30s and 40s.

MaryAnn has also shared her story at lecture to the medical students.  In her advocacy work, she has also interacted with a number of other survivors who do not fit the bill of the “typical” lung cancer patient. “Luckily in this era of social media, the world is a lot smaller. I have “met” so many people who have survived lung cancer,” says MaryAnn. “I’ve learned that there’s no typical demographic or experience. If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.”

If you would like to learn more about the research and fundraising efforts of Dr. Brendon Stiles: