Tracey Ketch wants people to know that a diagnosis of lung cancer can happen to anyone. And she’s sharing her story in hopes others won’t “fall through the net.”
Prior to his diagnosis, Ketch struggled with a persistent cough and shortness of breath. But the non-smoker claims four separate visits to her GP led to diagnoses of lung infections. Even when she underwent two x-rays in 2019, the then 49-year-old mother-of-two was given the ‘all-clear’.
Returning to her doctor in January 2020 after experiencing chest pains, Ketch was sent for an urgent chest scan which ultimately uncovered the reason for her health issues: a 1.5 inch tumor and secondary growths in his lungs. A consultant told her that her previous x-rays should have suggested she might have cancer.
“I’m sure my cancer has been forgotten because I don’t smoke. I feel like my symptoms were ruled out as soon as the issue of smoking was addressed,” the 53-year-old said. “It’s a checkbox system, but no two people are the same. The consultant who reviewed my previous x-rays told me that I should see a lawyer. He wanted to make sure the lessons were learned.
“I think my case shows how easy it is to slip through the net if you have lung cancer but are otherwise healthy and a non-smoker.”
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Ketch struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis after all the clearances she received, but now she is doing better after the drugs stopped her tumor growing. That being said, she will likely undergo more intense treatment in the future.
“I’m stable right now, which means the cancer isn’t growing, which of course is a good thing, but I don’t like to ask too much in advance,” she said. “I know there will be a time when the pills stop having a positive impact and I may need to consider chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“But I chose to live here and now and not worry. That’s how I cope. I also wanted to make sure lessons were learned.
Understanding lung cancer
Lung cancer, the second most common type of cancer, is the leading cause of cancer death for men and women in the United States. Diagnosing and treating the disease can be tricky because symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer has spread.
An initial symptom, for example, could be as severe as a seizure if the lung cancer has already spread to the brain. But other symptoms may include increased coughing, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, wheezing, loss of voice, or persistent infections like bronchitis or pneumonia.
The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell cancers, which account for 85% of cases, and small cell cancers. These types act differently and therefore require different types of treatment.
Dr Patrick Fordethoracic oncologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells SurvivorNet how distinguishing between the two types — and their subtypes — can be very beneficial.
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“Within this non-small cell category, there is a subtype called nonsquamous adenocarcinoma, and this is the group of patients for whom genetic testing is very important on the tumor,” he explains. “Genetic testing looks for mutations in the DNA, in the tumor, that are not present in your normal DNA.”
Lung cancer in non-smokers
Declining smoking rates have improved the outlook for lung cancer, as smoking is the main risk factor for the disease. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention state that smoking is linked to about 80-90% of lung cancer deathsand people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who don’t smoke.
It is important to remember, however, that even people who have never smoked before can still get lung cancer. The CDC reports that in the United States, about 10-20% of lung cancers, or 20,000-40,000 lung cancers each year, occur in people who have never smoked.
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“Some lung cancers are caused by unknown exposure to air pollution, radon or asbestos,” Dr Raja Flores, president of the Thoracic Surgery System at Mount Sinai, previously told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “We are also seeing more non-smokers with lung cancer who have a family history of it.”
Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. It is responsible for 3 to 16% of cancer cases depending on the levels present in a given area, according to the World Health Organizationbut smokers are still 25 times more exposed to radon than non-smokers.
Another possibility for the cause of lung cancer in a non-smoker may be second-hand smoke. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 7,000 adults die of lung cancer each year from breathing in second-hand smoke.
Air pollution, family history, HIV or AIDS can also impact a non-smoker’s risk of developing lung cancer. Either way, it’s important not to rule out the disease just because you don’t smoke – a fact Donna Hunting knows all too well.
Like Griffin, Hunting was a non-smoker when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. But the 54-year-old working woman’s cancer had progressed further as she had stage four non-small cell lung cancer.
If you have lungs, you may have lung cancer — Survivor Donna Hunting shares her story
“That day was overwhelming for my family and for me,” she previously told SurvivorNet. “It’s not a smoker’s disease. If you have lungs, you may have lung cancer.
Fortunately for Hunting, tests revealed that his tumors had a mutation in a specific gene called EGFR. This means the doctors were able to give him a pill to block these mutations and effectively rid his body of the disease.
“After 50 days, miraculously, my PET scan showed no signs of disease,” she said.
Hunting took the drug for over a year, until it also stopped working. She now takes a different daily treatment, but thanks to advances in treatment, she is able to live with the disease.
“Cancer is part of my life now, but it’s not my whole life. I don’t let cancer define me,” Hunting said.
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