Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States, surpassed only by heart disease. In 2017, a staggering 221,121 new cases of lung cancer were found. From those cases, 145,849 end up in deaths. (1)
Elizabeth Moir’s Story
Elizbeth’s story was a straightforward one. A former college basketball player, active, healthy young mom, 29-years of age, going through her second pregnancy in 2018. However, Elizabeth started to experience little changes out of the ordinary here and there, during her last trimester and after giving birth. She did not pay much attention, and neither did her doctor, to small unusual indications. (2)
She stopped gaining as much weight in the last trimester of her pregnancy, compared to her first one. Her doctor attributed it to Crohn’s disease, which she was diagnosed years earlier. Then, sudden severe chest pain rushed her to the ER, her physician thought it was normal, given that she was carrying the weight of a baby.
Life continued normally for Mrs. Moir, and she gave birth to a healthy girl in October 2018. A month later her husband got her a Peloton exercise bicycle. She used it regularly up to her return to work. Busy at work, she stopped exercising, but by April decided to get back to it. Elizabeth recalls trying to follow a quick 15 minutes routine and not being capable of it. Feeling unusually exhausted, she just thought to herself that she was really out of shape, and didn’t give it much more thought.
The Shocking Diagnosis
Later that evening, she coughed a light pinkish-red blood. Feeling concerned she scheduled an appointment the next day with her doctor. The physician determined it was likely a bronchitis infection, and prescribed her antibiotics. In a couple of days, she stopped coughing blood. Although the cough persisted, it was not annoying.
As things seemed to go back to normal, Elizabeth postponed her next doctor’s appointment, until one day she started coughing blood again. However, this time blood was darker and came out in quarter-sized drops. Alarmed by it, she went back to the doctor, where her physician then noticed the rapid weight loss.
After a series of analyses, tests, and second opinions, the dreaded results came. She had Stage IV lung cancer, and it had spread to her liver and bones. Also, they found three spots on her spine, pelvis, and rib cage. Elizabeth was in shock, how could someone as young as her, healthy, who never even smoked have lung cancer?
Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase Positive (ALK+)
Elizabeth Moir’s oncologist suggested getting comprehensive genomic profiling (CGP) to help identify what genetic mutations were present in her lung cancer diagnosis. After three weeks the results came, Elizabeth had anaplastic lymphoma kinase positive (ALK+) lung cancer. Despite the serious concerns of having lung cancer, this was good news for Elizabeth. Her ALK+ was treatable using targeted therapy, this meant that she would be taking a pill instead of going through traditional chemotherapy.
The anaplastic lymphoma kinase positive (ALK+) mutation triggers lung cells to grow abnormally like cancer cells. It also spreads to other parts of the body such as lymph nodes, bones, adrenal glands, or the brain. This is a rare form of cancer that affects only 1 in 25 patients suffering from non-small cell lung cancer.
A study showed that only 1.4% of lung cancer cases affect people under 35 years old, and of those, 71.6% were non-smokers. This is the opposite of the majority of people affected by lung cancer where 85% of cases are linked to cigarette smoking. (3)
Late Detection of Lung Cancer
The case of Elizabeth Moir is not isolated. On many occasions, lung cancer is not first on the mind of doctors when treating someone young, who is a non-smoker, and overall in good health complaining of respiratory issues. That’s why by the time it is actually detected, it’s often Stage IV, known also as metastatic lung cancer. Unfortunately too, chest X-rays generally miss lung cancer, it’s not until a biopsy is performed, that the lung cancer is often confirmed. (4)
Luckily for Elizabeth, her ALK+ lung cancer was treatable with targeted therapy. This consists of oral medication with limited or more manageable side effects than if treated with traditional chemotherapy.
Elizabeth’s advice is to pay attention to those small signs that something may be affecting your health, regardless of your age. To look for help, ask questions, and try to figure out if a serious health condition may be hidden behind small changes.