By Kim Williams | Published on November 16, 2023
My cough began in the spring of 2020, shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was healthy and active, didn’t smoke, and worked full time as a small animal veterinarian. I thought it could be allergies, but allergy medicine didn’t help the cough. So after a month, I called my doctor. Because of the pandemic, they weren’t seeing patients with coughs in the office, so they arranged a telemedicine appointment. I was tentatively diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and told to cut back on acidic foods and chocolate.
After another month, I was still coughing. At my next telemedicine appointment, I asked for a chest X-ray. They said that I didn’t need one because I hadn’t had treatment for GERD long enough. Instead, doctors thought I should try treatment for asthma. Because I had no other symptoms of asthma, I didn’t think that was the cause and therefore never started the recommended prescription.
By late August, my cough had worsened. I remember sounding like a broken record every time I told clients and friends, “It’s not COVID, it’s just a cough, I’m fine.” But it wasn’t just a cough, I wasn’t fine, and I needed answers. I called my doctor again and asked for a chest X-ray. Begrudgingly, they called in the order and the next day, I went to our local hospital to have the test done. The results revealed a mass in my chest, but I was told it was probably walking pneumonia and we needed more tests—specifically a chest CT scan—to confirm.
Unfortunately, the CT scan of my chest did not confirm walking pneumonia—I had metastatic lung cancer. My mantra of “I am healthy. I am a non-smoker,” was no longer relevant, and I immediately sought out a regional cancer specialist practice. Shortly after that appointment, I was hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in my lung, that can happen more often in people with lung cancer.
After more scans and a biopsy, I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (mNSCLC) and soon started IV chemotherapy. Three weeks later, my oncologist called with great news –through biomarker testing, we discovered that I had a type of lung cancer caused by a change in the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene that was treatable with oral targeted therapy. I had one more treatment of IV chemotherapy before the new medicine arrived.
I am so thankful to have had biomarker testing done to discover a different treatment option that is less invasive with fewer side effects, which maintains my quality of life. Research is developing new and innovative ways to fight cancer all the time, and available treatment options for lung cancer are increasingly based on cancer biomarkers.
Today, I am still stable with ALK positive mNSCLC. Three years since I developed that cough, I’m sharing my story to change the world’s perception of who gets lung cancer. It’s not just smokers, it’s healthy people of all ages—anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.
The current average life expectancy for ALK positive lung cancer is six years, with many patients living ten years or more. If I progress on the treatment I am currently undergoing (a second-generation ALK inhibitor drug), there are third generation ALK inhibitor drugs approved for use, and fourth generation ALK inhibitor drugs currently in clinical trials. Research continues to find more ways to combat drug resistance, and the future will hopefully redefine ALK positive lung cancer from a terminal disease into a chronic, or even a curable, disease.
Non-smokers with chronic symptoms deserve the same consideration for diagnostics that those at high-risk of lung cancer do. It’s important to know what is normal for you and your body— when something isn’t right, speak up and seek out the care that you need. If you have a persistent cough or other symptoms, do not delay in finding an answer. It might be nothing, but it might be something—perhaps life-changing.
And if you do smoke, or if you used to smoke, take advantage of routine annual screening for lung cancer. Those at high-risk for lung cancer can get screened annually, so talk to your health care provider to see if you should be screened (regardless of whether you have any signs or symptoms of disease). Early Detection = Better Outcomes, so don’t stop advocating for your health.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. If you experience any symptoms that don’t go away, talk with your health care provider, even if you do not have any risk factors for lung cancer. To learn more about lung cancer, visit preventcancer.org/lung.