Ironically, I received a diagnosis of lung cancer when I was feeling my healthiest. In December 2015, when I was just 51 years old, a routine chest x-ray found a small shadow on the lower lobe of my right lung. Despite being a never-smoker, a regular exerciser, and a healthy eater, my primary care physician suggested I have a computerized tomography scan to get a more precise assessment of the “shadow” on my lung. The test showed the shadow was a 1.2-cm nodule, and my physician suggested a wait-and-watch approach to see whether the mass grew over time. When it reached 2.4 cm, my physician decided to biopsy the nodule to determine whether it was malignant.
To my great relief, the pathology analysis could find no signs of cancer. However, over the next succeeding months, the mass continued to grow, and I was advised to have the nodule removed. Still, I was not worried that I could have cancer; after all, I reasoned, I have never used tobacco products and lead a healthy lifestyle. I would quickly learn that these factors are no guarantee against developing cancer.
Diagnosis of Stage IV Lung Cancer
In December 2017, I was scheduled to have a wedge resection to remove the still unidentified mass as well as several surrounding lymph nodes. However, when the pathology examination of the tumor tissue found that I did, in fact, have lung cancer, I woke up to learn that my surgeon had performed a thoracotomy to remove two lobes of my right lung. Fortunately, my lymph nodes were clear of malignancy, and I was diagnosed with stage I adenosquamous carcinoma, a rare subtype of non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
My oncologist recommended periodic imaging scans to spot any cancer recurrence, and over the next 18 months, I appeared to be cancer-free. But in early 2020, several small nodules began appearing in my left lung, and in May, surgical resection of the tumor tissue found that it, too, was NSCLC. Now, the cancer was stage IV, and I was in a more precarious medical situation.
Tumor genomic profiling found that the cancer harbored the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) exon 19 deletion gene mutation. Fortunately, improved overall survival results from the ADAURA randomized clinical trial (ClinicalTrials.gov identifier NCT02511106) investigating osimertinib, a third-generation EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor, in patients with EGFR exon 19 deletions or exon 21 L858R mutation–positive NSCLC, prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in December 2020, to approve osimertinib for adjuvant therapy after tumor resection.1
I’ve been on the therapy for nearly 2.5 years, and it has kept the cancer from recurring.
Making a Difference
Lung cancer, regardless of the cause of its development, carries significant stigma, often leading to delayed diagnosis and feelings of shame and loneliness. When I was diagnosed, I realized I could be a voice for other lung cancer survivors and began to advocate for patients’ rights and for increased funding for this serious cancer.
My home state of Kentucky has both the highest incidence rate and mortality rate of lung cancer in the nation.2 Nationwide, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 238,340 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and that 127,070 people will die of the disease.3
We have to do better to change these statistics and improve the lives of people diagnosed with lung cancer. In 2019, I launched Breath of Hope Kentucky (bohky.org) to raise awareness about lung cancer in my state and help erase the stigma of the disease as well as reduce mortality and improve outcomes for patients. We are making a difference, one conversation at a time, and have raised more than $134,000 for research.
Finding a New Life Purpose
Sometimes, we don’t really start living until mortality is staring us in the face. Becoming an advocate for other lung cancer survivors has given me a newfound life purpose. Every day, I take all the negative aspects of having cancer and turn them into positive good works. Cancer has given me more than it has taken away, including a tireless effort to fight for others diagnosed with this disease.
I am very grateful for my good health at this moment and have hope for my future as well as for the futures of other survivors. I know there is important research going on to find more effective therapies for lung cancer and am grateful to the researchers working in this field. I’ll continue to do my part to end the stigma surrounding lung cancer and help generate change in the dire statistics of this disease, not just in my state but nationwide as well.
Ms. Campbell is the founder of Breath of Hope Kentucky (bohky.org) and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Editor’s Note: Columns in the Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post received from patients and should be considered anecdotal.
1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: FDA approves osimertinib as adjuvant therapy for non-small cell lung cancer with EGFR mutations. Available at www.fda.gov/drugs/resources-information-approved-drugs/fda-approves-osimertinib-adjuvant-therapy-non-small-cell-lung-cancer-egfr-mutations. Accessed February 6, 2023.
2. American Lung Association: New report: Kentucky has highest lung cancer incidence rate in the nation. Available at www.lung.org/media/press-releases/solc-2021-ky. Accessed February 6, 2023.
3. American Cancer Society: Key statistics for lung cancer. Available at www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/about/key-statistics.html. Accessed February 6, 2023.