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Spreading the Word about Lung Cancer


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FORTUNA -- Mary Lou Fisher has never smoked, but she has lung cancer.

Fisher, 68, represents an unsuspecting and often misunderstood face of this deadly disease.

”Lots of people (think) I have breast cancer. That's kind of the common thing among women,” Fisher said. “So, when I tell them it's lung cancer, I say, 'But I never smoked a day in my life.' You just want to get that out there, so they can't blame it on that.”

For far too long, she said, there has been a stigma attached to lung cancer.

”There's a 'You smoked so you must have deserved it' kind of attitude. Nobody deserves cancer,” she said.

Today, Fisher -- who was diagnosed three years ago this month -- is taking part in a national campaign sponsored by the Lung Cancer Alliance to get the word out about this disease which affects smokers, former smokers and non-smokers alike.

The Lung Cancer Alliance -- www.lungcanceralliance.org -- is a nonprofit organization dedicated to patient support and advocacy. Fisher said the alliance has provided her with a lot of information and support during her battle with cancer.

”When I first was diagnosed,” Fisher said, “they set me up with a phone buddy and I started getting their paper ... I'd go on the Internet and do chats on their Web site.”

According to the Lung Cancer Alliance, 50 percent of all new lung cases are former smokers, many who quit decades ago, such as news anchor Peter Jennings, who died of the disease in August 2005 at age 67. Ten to 15 percent of those newly diagnosed have never smoked, like actress and activist Dana Reeve, who died of lung cancer at age 44 in March 2006.

Current smokers represent 35 to 40 percent of new lung cancer cases.

According to the American Cancer Society -- www.cancer.org -- lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. An estimated 215,020 new cases of lung cancer were expected in 2008. More than 161,800 people are estimated to have died from the disease last year. Since 1987, more women have died each year from lung cancer than from breast cancer.

Fisher was born and raised in Fortuna. She graduated from Fortuna High School in 1958. She and her high school sweetheart, Doug, married two days after she graduated, on her 18th birthday.

”We just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary,” said Fisher, who still lives in Fortuna with her husband and their dog, Moxie.

Fisher retired in 2000 after working for 20 years as the cafeteria manager at Hydesville Elementary School. She and Doug -- who have three grown children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild -- have stayed active after retirement. They are members of the Good Sam Club and enjoy taking road trips around the North Coast in their recreational vehicle. They are also active with Hydesville Community Church.

Three years ago, Fisher's world changed forever. In January 2006, she woke up with severe pain in her midsection.

”I'm not one of these people that complain a lot,” Fisher explained. “My husband said, 'Do you want to go to the hospital?' and I said, 'Yeah, take me.'”

An emergency room physician examined her that morning and ordered a CT scan, which confirmed the problem -- a kidney stone. It also revealed another unexpected concern.

”They happened to catch the bottom of my left lung,” Fisher said. “They said, 'The good thing is your kidney stone will pass, but we want you to come back and get another CAT scan because we see a little mass in the bottom of (your) lung.”

After the second CT scan was performed, Fisher was sent to a pulmonary physician who informed her that she would need to have a biopsy. She said he told her, “Because you've never smoked, the chances of it being cancer are very, very small.”

Despite the odds, the mass turned out to be malignant. Fisher was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer.

Fisher was then directed to have a PET scan, an imaging test that looks specifically at how organs and tissues are functioning. She was also referred to a surgeon, who gave her some more bad news.

”He walked in and said he had the results of the PET scan. He said, 'I'm sorry, I can't do surgery. You're in Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.'”

Fisher was referred to an oncologist, who told her the cancer had spread to her bones, diaphragm and lymph nodes. She was told she had eight months to two years to live.

”When I was diagnosed, it was the very time that Dana Reeve died,” Fisher said. “It was kind of a downer for me. I thought that she probably had the best of care and she didn't make it ... She was a non-smoker, too. I hadn't heard of too many people who were non-smokers who had lung cancer.”

According to the Lung Cancer Alliance, only 16 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed in an early stage when effective treatment is still possible. Many lung cancer patients don't exhibit symptoms until the disease has progressed considerably.

”I was told you don't have many symptoms with lung cancer and that's why it's so deadly,” said Fisher, who said she'd experienced various suspicious indicators which may or may not have been related to her diagnosis.

”I was having night sweats and I've read that that can be a sign of cancer,” she said. “I have arthritis in all my joints, but I was having pain behind my lung in the back of my spine. It was different than what I have in my joints.”

According to the American Cancer Society, cigarette smoking remains the most important risk factor for lung cancer. Other risk factors include occupational or environmental exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, asbestos, certain metals, some organic chemicals, radiation, air pollution and a history of tuberculosis. Genetics also plays a role.

Some of the symptoms of lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, include persistent coughing, sputum streaked with blood, chest pain, voice change and recurrent pneumonia or bronchitis.

Right away, Fisher was started on an aggressive regime of chemotherapy. She finished six rounds of treatment in July 2006.

”It knocked it down a lot and some of it in the bones wasn't showing anymore,” said Fisher, who was also put on medication -- an oral type of chemotherapy, she said -- that helps keep the malignancy at bay.

”I've been on it 27 months now and it's keeping my cancer stable,” she said. “I was told I wasn't curable, but there are all these things lined up that they can treat you with.”

Fisher says that she did seek a second opinion in the Sacramento area after she finished chemotherapy. That doctor, she said, confirmed that Fisher had received the best course of treatment. He also asked Fisher how her doctors had discovered she had lung cancer.

”When I told him because of a kidney stone, he told me, 'You would've been dead probably within four months' (without treatment),” Fisher recalled. “I thought, 'Wow, thanks for that kidney stone. Thank you Lord for that. I feel like that's kind of a miracle within itself that that happened because I haven't had a kidney stone since.”

Throughout her cancer ordeal, Fisher has strived to maintain an upbeat attitude.

”There are kind of little goals you look for in life,” she said. “When I was first diagnosed, I was looking forward to Christmas, then I just wanted to make my 50th (anniversary). Now, I'm planning to be here five years down the road, maybe 10 years.”

Fisher is quick to note that she's not in remission, but that her cancer is being “controlled.”

”It's showing right now outside of the lung lymph nodes. They call it the hilar area of the lung,” she said.

Fisher sees her doctor every three months for checkups and has a CT scan every six months, or more often if a problem or concern arises. She also gets an infusion every three months to keep her bones healthy.

”Once cancer gets in your bones,”she said, “they want to keep them strong and keep them from breaking.”

Fisher is thankful for her family and friends who, she said, have given her continuing love and support.

”My husband is a wonderful helper,” she said. “He helps with housework when he knows I'm tired. He's a great foot rubber or he'll rub my back. He's a very good caregiver, as well as my whole family. They're all very supportive. It's great when you have people to go through it with.”

She also relies on her faith and members of her church.

”We just feel that I did so well because I had a lot of people praying for me,” Fisher said. “...I just couldn't believe everybody who is praying for me. The doctor is even amazed at how well I'm doing.”

Fisher has long attended Hydesville Community Church, which offers various programs including a monthly support group for people with any kind of cancer. In this group, Fisher and other members can talk about their challenges and offer hope and strength to other people, too.

”It's a big help to talk to others who are going through it,” Fisher said. “...There's a verse that God gives us the comfort when we need it through our trials so we can turn around and help other people when they have trials. That's how I feel, that I have maybe a new mission in life.”

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(Times Standard Online, Serving Eureka and California's North Coast, January 11, 2009)


The information contained in these articles may or may not be in agreement with my own opinions. They are not being posted with the intention of being medical advice of any kind.

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