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Karen Bolipata

Bristol Herald Courier

Aug 15, 6:17 AM EDT

Lilian Hite of Kingsport is a 10-year lung cancer survivor.

Andre Teague (Bristol Herald Courier)

KINGSPORT – Lillian Hite remembers the day she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

She went home and threw her pack of cigarettes against the wall.

“Ain’t never smoked them no more,” said Hite, now 64. “Ain’t never smoked any since then.”

That was nearly 10 years ago.

Hite has survived lung cancer. That’s a rarity for someone with a disease that, in its early stages, has few symptoms. It typically grows into a serious problem before it’s detected.

Hite underwent surgery twice – the first time to remove the lower lobe of her left lung along with the tumor. She had surgery about five years later on the upper lobe of her right lung.

When she heard about the death of newscaster Peter Jennings last week, she felt deeply affected.

“It made me real sad,” she said. “I’ve been through it, and I know how it is.”

Then came an announcement by Dana Reeve, wife of the late “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve, that she has the disease despite never having smoked.

Her revelation and Jennings’ death spurred talk about the disease at office watercoolers and around dinner tables.

The disease, dubbed the most preventable cause of premature death, will claim more than 163,000 lives nationwide this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

With figures like that, lung and bronchial carcinoma tops the list as the most fatal type of cancer. Colon cancer comes in a distant second, with fewer than 57,000 deaths a year.

No reliable screening method exists for early detection of lung cancer. Chest X-rays don’t always detect the disease in its early stages.

Dr. Michael Baron, a pulmonary specialist, said it’s hard to diagnose the disease early because of its few symptoms. Because the lungs don’t produce pain, a patient won’t feel the disease until it spreads elsewhere, he said.

“The patient won’t have symptoms unless it’s too late to pick it up at a curable stage,” Baron said.

Late diagnosis, coupled with other factors, puts the expected five-year survival rate for lung cancer patients at 15 percent, compared to 63 percent for colon cancer, 88 percent for breast cancer and 99 percent for prostate cancer.

Hite, who started smoking in her adolescence, went to the doctor after she coughed up blood in November 1996. She was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, one of the two main types of the disease. The other type, small-cell lung cancer, often is more fatal.

Doctors almost always trace the cause of small-cell cancer to smoking, according to the American Cancer Society. Small-cell lung cancer accounts for about 13 percent of all lung cancers.

Such cancer cells multiply quickly and form large tumors throughout the body.

Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for the majority of cases. Its subtypes develop differently, and doctors base treatment on where the cancer cells have spread and how quickly.

Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Hite’s cancer returned in February, and doctors determined she didn’t have the lung capacity to endure another surgery. This time, she underwent a course of radiation and chemotherapy that ended in June.

“Everything’s looking good since then,” she said.

Of the roughly 173,000 new cases diagnosed last year, 4,050 were in Virginia and 4,680 were in Tennessee, according to the American Cancer Society.

The Virginia Cancer Registry indicates that 236 new cases were diagnosed in Washington County from 1998-2002. Within the same time frame, 208 deaths from the disease were recorded, according to the Virginia Health Department.

In Sullivan County, 500 new cases were diagnosed from 1997-2000, according to the Tennessee Cancer Registry. The county saw 451 deaths from the disease within the same time period.

Not all lung cancer can be traced to smoking or secondhand smoke. Cigarette smoking causes about 87 percent of lung cancer deaths. Radon and asbestos also have been linked to the disease.

With no tried and true screening method for lung cancer, medical officials say the best way to prevent it is to stop smoking – or, better yet, don’t start.

For smokers who kick the habit, their risk of developing the disease decreases each year they don’t smoke.

Had she never been diagnosed with lung cancer, Hite said she probably wouldn’t have stopped smoking. At one time, she smoked up to two packs of cigarettes a day, she said.

Hite calls herself a living reminder of the negative toll smoking takes on the body. She donned a hot-pink baseball cap to cover her bare scalp, along with a pink T-shirt and fuzzy pink flip-flops to match.

“People out there need to take care of themselves better,” Hite said. “None of these people should ever pick up a cigarette.”

But lifelong smokers like Michelle Pierce of Bristol say quitting isn’t easy.

Pierce started smoking at 14 to fit in with her friends. Now, at 33, she smokes a pack a day.

“It’s a stress-reliever,” Pierce said. “It gives you that break. It kind of just settles you down.”

The news of Jennings’ death and Reeve’s diagnosis won’t make her stop, she said.

“You note it,” Pierce said. “You note it in the back of your mind and move on.”

kbolipata@bristolnews.com | (276) 669-2181

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