By Reina Honts
Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death among both men and women. In the U.S. alone, approximately 228,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year. This disease does not just affect smokers. If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. Currently, almost 20 percent of lung cancer diagnoses occur in people who have never smoked. Over 60 percent of those diagnosed are not current smokers, which includes those who may have smoked in the past.
Death rates for lung cancer are so high because it is often detected too late, when treatment options are limited. This is why early detection is so critical. When non-small cell lung cancer is diagnosed in its early stage, the five-year survival rate is upwards of 60 percent versus 6 percent for late-stage diagnosis.
I lost both my mother and my grandmother to cancer—my mother to lung cancer at 53, and my grandmother to breast cancer at 57. As I approached my 50th birthday, which was not exactly thrilling for me, I began seeing public service announcements on bus stops recommending low-grade CT scan screening for former smokers or people who have been exposed to second-hand smoke. This prompted me to ask for a CT scan at my annual exam, which came back with results showing cancer. Neither my doctor nor I could believe it. I was diagnosed with lung cancer at almost the exact same age as my mother, who was a smoker while I am not. I was incredibly lucky to catch it in its early stages.
Since the cancer was isolated in my lung, I underwent a lobectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering. The surgery left a 5-inch scar vertically under my right arm. I was left with a chest tube to drain the fluid from my lungs. I spent five days in the hospital and then was on bed rest at home. Friends generously dropped off meals for my family and were there to accompany me on my first walks. The surgery and recovery were painful, to be honest. It took more time than I expected to recover from surgery; there is a psychological component to it that I didn’t anticipate. I first turned to meditation, using an app called Unplug that my friend Suze Yalof Schwartz created, while I was in the hospital and recovering the first month. It was very effective in helping with pain management and lowering my heart rate.
Yoga and Pilates helped me through the next phase of my healing. I have practiced mostly vinyasa, and fell in love with hot flow. I still practice at least three days a week, and have slowly began incorporating more cardio with Barry’s Bootcamp or SoulCycle classes. I am not the fastest or strongest person in these classes, but I am just happy to be in the room! One thing I have heard consistently from all of my doctors is that exercise directly reduces the risks of recurring cancer diagnosis.
I have always lived a pretty balanced life. Every morning, I make a smoothie filled with lots of Beauty Chef ingredients and loads of antioxidant berries. I try to avoid inflammatory foods, and take multiple supplements such as vitamin D, C, B12 and milk thistle. I add more turmeric and other things that help with inflammation.
A good friend, Sophia Ruan Gushée, was very helpful in helping me find ways to detoxify my home. She is an expert on the subject, having written A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures. Through Sophia and her book, I learned that indoor air tends to be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, even in NYC. We used Environmental Working Group’s website to detox my cleaning supplies, and I bought air purifiers and changed out all my mattresses to Naturepedic ones. Sophia’s website, nontoxicliving.tips, has great resources.
Although lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer in the world, it is the most underfunded cancer from a research perspective. We are on the cusp of great innovations in treatments for lung cancer, with the potential to dramatically improve the prospects for lung cancer patients. The Lung Cancer Research Foundation (LCRF) is the leading nonprofit organization focused on funding innovative, high-reward research with the potential to extend survival and improve quality of life for people with lung cancer. The organization’s mission is to improve lung cancer outcomes by funding research for the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure of the disease.
The LCRF hosts a few main events a year—the next one is on November 12 in NYC. It also hosts its annual Strides for Life walk in Southampton. The sole purpose is to raise funds and awareness for lung cancer research in honor and memory of those who have been touched by lung cancer. Each year, the LCRF receives hundreds of applications to fund new research, and most of these projects are worthy. LCRF is only able to fund a small percentage of the research projects, which is why donations are so important.
More women who have never smoked are developing lung cancer, and many of them are very young. It’s not clear whether the causes are environmental, hormonal or genetic, or a combination of these factors. While the genetic link is not as strong in lung cancer as in some other types of cancers, having a sibling or parent with lung cancer does increase risk. I recommend a low-grade CT scan to anyone who was exposed to excessive toxins like secondhand smoke, was a previous or is a current smoker, or has a family history of lung cancer. The low-grade CT scan saved my life. I also recommend paying attention to any red flags like shortness of breath, an incessant cough or overwhelming fatigue. You have to be your own advocate. If your doctor dismisses your concerns, you should consider changing doctors.
At my one-year follow-up CT scan in April, I got a clean result. If my mother had been diagnosed with the treatments we have available today, she might have been a long-term survivor, which could have enabled her to attend my wedding and meet her grandchildren. I am dedicated to improving the prospects for, and extending the lives of, future lung cancer patients.
My kids have been involved in fundraising for pediatric cancer for many years, as their close friend Scarlett was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 6. It was natural for them to participate in fundraising activities for her through The Scarlett Fund. My own diagnosis opened up a dialogue with them about the dangers of smoking and vaping. This will be their first run for the Strides for Life. Both have recruited their friends to walk or support them.
For more information about the Lung Cancer Research Foundation and how to get involved, visit lcrf.org