Yes, Nonsmokers Can Get Lung Cancer Too
Donna Thompson readily admits that she is not the model lung cancer patient. At 45 years young and a nonsmoker, even her doctors were surprised by her diagnosis. But on October 23, 2015, she received the news: lung cancer. Her life – and many others’ – was about to change.
“I would get a sharp pain in my back every so often,” she says, “but then, on a day in September 2015, I started getting chest pain. I knew it was serious. I had to go to the ER.” So she checked in to the Emergency Department at Delaware County Memorial Hospital (DCMH), where they did blood tests and X-rays. One day later she got a call from the ED physician: “He said I had a mass on my lung and needed to see a doctor right away,” Thompson says.
Stunned at the news and never before needing a specialist, Thompson was referred to Geoffrey Koff, M.D., DCMH pulmonologist. “I loved his approach,” she says. “He was very calming and helped me get through all the testing I needed for a very scary diagnosis. He was the first to say the word ‘cancer.’” Koff did everything he could to help Thompson understand the severity of her condition while at the same time giving her hope to manage it. He drew pictures to show her the location of the 4-centimeter tumor, which is nearly the size of a golf ball. “I thought, ‘How could this be?’” she says. “I was in complete shock.” But when she started putting the pieces together, Thompson realized there were other signs and environmental hazards that put her at risk for lung disease – decades of exposure to mold and second-hand smoke, along with constant coughing and diagnoses of asthma and allergies in the six years prior to her cancer diagnosis. She was ready to take her next step, at Koff’s urging a visit to Fox Chase Cancer Center thoracic surgeon Stacey Su, M.D., who serves as director of Thoracic Surgical Oncology at DCMH.
Su immediately evaluated Thompson and scheduled her for surgery on November 30, 2015. “That was the day my cancer was removed,” Thompson says. “Dr. Su removed the upper right lobe of my right lung and part of my lymph nodes. She and her physician assistant, Kerry Clay, were amazing.” The tumor was an advanced, aggressive form of cancer, so after consulting with Fox Chase medical oncologist Hussein Borghaei, M.D., Thompson’s medical team, led by Crozer Health medical oncologist Rajesh Thirumaran, M.D., decided on a four-month course of chemotherapy at the Crozer Health Regional Cancer Center at Broomall. But she was only able to tolerate two months’ worth before she had to stop.
Her latest CT scan, in March 2017, showed no evidence of cancer. “Even though Donna had an aggressive cancer, we took a timely multidisciplinary approach in treating her,” Thirumaran says. “She is doing very well and, today, is cancer-free.”
Despite what she went through, Thompson feels that she is stronger because of her diagnosis. She talks openly with others about her experience, in the hopes that they too will listen to their bodies if something seems wrong. “It’s hard for me to talk about myself,” she says, “but if I’m doing it for someone else, then I can handle it.” The experience also led Thompson to Patti Hollenback, R.N., B.S.N., OCN, oncology nurse navigator at Crozer Health at Broomall, who says that the largest growing population of new lung cancer diagnoses is among nonsmoking females. “The point is, any person who has lungs has a risk of developing lung cancer,” Hollenback says. “It’s not restricted to people who smoke, so maybe that shouldn’t always be our first question.”
Hollenback helped Thompson clinically, but she also helped her find the necessary financial resources to defray some of her medical costs. “Patti is ‘my person; my kindred spirit,’” Thompson says. “I’m everyone else’s person, but she is mine.” During their talks, Thompson learned that her oncology nurse also cared for Hollenback’s late husband, Harry, who passed away from colorectal cancer at age 50.
As a result, Thompson has a new lease on life and devotes a great deal of time organizing events and speaking to groups about her lung cancer journey. She’s changed her eating habits, exercises regularly, and has even helped Hollenback launch a new general cancer support group, “Stronger Together,” at Crozer Health at Broomall. “She’s going to save lives by making people more aware – especially women – that they need to listen to their bodies and take action,” Hollenback says. “Donna is a patient advocate and an inspiration to other patients with lung cancer,” Thirumaran adds.
“If you aren’t feeling well, do something about it. The message is to have a good relationship with your primary care physician and keep asking questions,” Hollenback says. “If you have a symptom that you’re worried about and you don’t meet the lung screening criteria, talk to your doctor or see a pulmonologist.”
“If I would have waited just a few months, my situation would have been very different,” Thompson says. Going forward, she will have frequent scans for the next few years. From there, she will not need to be monitored as closely but will still require follow-up visits and testing.
Donna Thompson’s “village” is her DCMH and Crozer Health at Broomall medical team, including Hollenback, Koff, Su, Clay and Thirumaran. She was impressed by the way Crozer Health and Fox Chase Cancer Center experts worked together to achieve the best possible outcome. She says her experience was exceptional, and that “everyone at DCMH and Broomall was amazing. I trusted my doctors from the very beginning. I would not go anywhere else.”
For more information about Crozer Health ’s lung cancer program, visit crozerkeystone.org/Lung or call a lung navigator at 484-446-3647 or 484-446-3644. Crozer Health offers its Lung Screening CT Program at multiple locations; patients must meet specific criteria.
For more information about the Stronger Together general cancer support group, call 484-446-3644. The group meets in the Community Room at Crozer Health at Broomall on the fourth Tuesday of every month from 6:30 to 8 p.m.