If You Have Lungs, You’re at Risk for Lung Cancer

Photos courtesy of Ivy Elkins.

Deerfield resident and mother of four children Jill Feldman has a long and painful family history of lung cancer — two of her grandparents, her parents, and her aunt all died from the disease. After all of this tragedy, Feldman began to get involved in the LUNGevity Foundation, which was founded by seven Chicago-area lung cancer patients who were working toward change while also fighting for their lives. Advocating for herself and being as proactive as possible, Feldman began to get scans. At 39, when she was the president of LUNGevity at the time, Feldman was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“I had surgery, and I was considered cured,” Feldman says. “Never did I think that the lung cancer would return and I would have another surgery two and a half years later.”

Feldman has incurable lung cancer. She has been managing her cancer using targeted radiation, and she pays close attention to advancements in research and spends a great deal of time helping others navigate the lung health landscape.

“If you have lungs, you’re at risk,” Feldman says.

Jill Feldman

Jill Feldman

Smoking, Feldman says, isn’t the only cause of lung cancer and the stigma of smoking as a cause leads to barriers in diagnosis, treatment and lack of research dollars for funding. Radon, air pollution and other toxins are also leading causes of the disease and everyone should be aware and vigilant.

Connecting with others in a similar situation or leaning on support groups helps you to not only manage the side effects, but to also learn about nutrition and exercise. Feldman also advises that most medical teams have doctors and nurses that will educate patients and connect them with advocacy organizations in the community.

“There are groups for every disease that have volunteer opportunities, host events or races, provide support, whether online or in person, have mentor programs, etc.,” Feldman says. “Things have changed with social media and the internet — no one ever has to fight alone!”

Lung cancer, according to the Respiratory Health Association, is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. Tumor cells in the lung can grow and spread rapidly throughout the body. Signs are:

  • A persistent cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest, back or shoulder pain
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness
  • Exhaustion and/or weight loss.

To protect yourself as much as possible, RHA suggests stopping or avoiding starting smoking, getting your home tested for radon (most home improvement stores carry a testing kit), and avoiding second-hand smoke at all costs.

So how do you strengthen your lungs and keep them healthy, even if you don’t have lung cancer? Rush University Medical Center recommends:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing
  • Increasing the length of your inhalations and exhalations
  • Staying hydrated
  • Using your abdominal muscles to laugh and increase lung capacity
  • Staying active and fit

“Lungs at rest and during most daily activities are only at 50 percent of their capacity,” says Jennifer M. Ryan, PT, MS, DPT, CCS, certified specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. “Like the rest of your body, lungs thrive on movement and activity.”

The American Cancer Society insists that the most changeable cancer risk factors are diet, weight and physical activity. In addition to avoiding tobacco, the ACS recommends staying at a healthy weight, being active every day and throughout life, and eating a wholesome diet. Of course, screening and testing are also great tools for early detection, before any symptoms are present.

Ivy Elkins of Buffalo Grove was diagnosed with stage-four non-small cell lung cancer in 2013. She was healthy. She wasn’t a smoker. Elkins knew there was problem when she had prolonged neck and elbow pain. After several months of doctor visits, an MRI was ordered, which detected a mass in her elbow — adenocarcinoma. A PET scan followed, which revealed that the cancer had originated in her lungs.

“When I was diagnosed, I was completely surprised because I was totally unaware that someone like me could get lung cancer,” Elkins says. “Luckily, I had molecular testing, discovered that I had an EGFR mutation and started quickly on targeted therapy treatment.”

Ivy Elkins

Ivy Elkins

Elkins began taking daily targeted medication and she says, “My cancer is not curable at the current time, but it is treatable and I have been fortunate enough to be able to treat it as a chronic disease to date.”

Along the way, Elkins learned that lung cancer is often extremely difficult to diagnose because symptoms frequently don’t become obvious until a person is already in an advanced stage.

“By the time I was diagnosed, my cancer had spread from my lungs to my bones (neck, elbow, and a few other small areas in my ribs and pelvis) and to my brain (eight very small lesions in my brain),” Elkins says. “Since I didn’t have a large originating mass in my lungs, my breathing wasn’t affected so the only way the cancer could be detected was when it had spread. This is extremely common and is one of the reasons why lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer.”

Elkins says that the stereotype of someone with lung cancer is of an older person with a smoking habit. In fact, lung cancer can affect anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or smoking history. It’s important to share this information, these stories, to promote understanding and to encourage more research into lung cancer prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatments.

“You may not see your lungs or think about them very often, but if they are not working correctly, you will definitely see the impact on your life through increased fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath, and other issues,” Elkins says.

Elkins’ best advice? Know your body. Elkins knew something was wrong and she advocated for herself, kept visiting doctors, and persisted until she got an answer. Elkins also recommends getting involved with support organizations to learn the right questions to ask, to find resources and information — like finding an oncologist that specializes in thoracic oncology, and sees numerous lung cancer patients and points you into the right molecular testing for targeted therapy — and to have someone to talk to that knows what you’re going through.

“When I was first diagnosed, a fellow survivor helped me navigate my diagnosis and oncologist choice,” Elkins says. “She is now one of my close friends. In turn, I mentor a woman with a diagnosis similar to mine and help her with her journey.”

Lung cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer in America, in both men and women — including colon, breast and prostate cancers combined — according to the American Cancer Society.

Take a quiz to test your knowledge on the risks of lung cancer here.

Events and Fundraisers

Do you want to get involved? Check out these great events and fundraisers and be a part of the solution.

  • If biking is your thing, join the RHA’s CowaLUNGa charity bike tour, July 29-31. Courses vary in length and all abilities are welcome.
  • On Sept. 17, RHA hosts the Hike for Lung Health event, a charity walk (one- or three-mile courses) held in Lincoln Park that raises funds for lung disease.
  • Save the date: Feb. 25, 2018, is the RHA’s most popular event, Hustle Up the Hancock. Join 4,000 of your new friends and raise money for lung disease research, advocacy and education.
  • LUNGevity also has several events throughout the year, including Breathe Deep walks/runs, which raise money for support, research and education. Breathe Deep DuPage is Sept. 10, Breath Deep Springfield is Oct. 1, Breathe Deep Busse Woods is Nov. 11, and Breathe Deep North Shore (Deerfield) is scheduled for 2018.

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Wendy Altschuler

Wendy Altschuler is a seasoned travel and lifestyle writer with more than a decade of clips in various publications: MSN, Delta Sky, Modern Luxury, Sun-Times Media, Tribune Brand Copy, Parents Magazine, Yoga Magazine, The Daily Meal, Spafinder, Red Tricycle, Eluxe Magazine and many more. She is happiest when out exploring and adventuring or on a trail with her family and pup. Follow her on social @wendyaltschuler or visit her website: wendyaltschuler.com.