This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
In July 2015, 33-year-old Kelly Colling began to experience nausea and stomach pains. While it was not disabling—Colling was able to eat, go to work and take care of her young daughter—it was unusual. After three weeks of consistent, dull pain, she went to urgent care where she was told it was a “female problem.” Not satisfied with that answer, she then went to the emergency room and was told if it did not subside she would need a computerized tomography, or CT, scan. It didn’t, and Colling returned. A CT scan was ordered, which revealed a nine millimeter module on her right lung.
“They told me that lung modules are common, and they usually monitor them annually,” recalls Colling, who lives in Oak Grove, Minnesota. “I work as a certified medical assistant so it frightened me to learn that I would have something hanging on my lung; I’ve heard horror stories. Also, my husband and I were talking about getting pregnant at the time, and that was a red flag to me, and why I wanted to push for further testing on that area. I thought, if I’m carrying a baby for nine months, I certainly don’t want to also carry something that is deadly to my health.”
Colling asked her doctor to do further testing, but her doctor was reluctant. After continued pushing, Colling was referred to a lung clinic where a pulmonologist told her there was nothing to worry about and she should check back in six months. Again, Colling refused to listen and requested a biopsy. The results were abnormal, and everyone, including Colling, was surprised. A thoracic surgeon decided to remove and test the module, and five days later Colling had her diagnosis: stage 1A lung cancer.
From the beginning of her stomach pains to the lobectomy, which removed the infected lobe of her lung, Colling’s process took approximately one and a half months. And, as soon as she received the diagnosis, before the lobectomy, her symptoms disappeared.
“The pain and nausea subsided when I got diagnosed, and it never happened again,” Colling says. “It was like, ‘I warned you something was going on and now that you’ve figured it out, I will go away.’”
A former social smoker, who estimates she went through a pack a week for five years, Colling had quit smoking a year before diagnosis and has been told repeatedly that the small quantity and length of time she smoked did not play a factor in her diagnosis. They believe it was most likely due to environmental causes, but no definite reason can be given.
“Those who are at high risk for lung cancer are people over the age of 55 up until the age of 80 who have at least a 30 year pack history of having smoked and either currently smoked or have quit within the past 15 years,” explains Andrea McKee, M.D., the chair of Radiation Oncology at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “A 30 year pack history means one pack per day for 30 years or two packs a day per 15 years. The second leading cause of lung cancer death, after tobacco, is radon.”
National Women’s Lung Health Week begins May 7, and The American Lung Association hopes that stories from women like Colling will help others become more aware of the startling facts surrounding lung cancer. Presently, 98 percent of women do not even have lung cancer on their radar—that’s almost all women.
“Each year, more women die of lung cancer than breast, ovarian and uterine cancers combined,” Dr. McKee explains. “Far and away, lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer, but most women don’t even think about it.”
Colling was part of that majority, but after receiving her diagnosis, she began to research online, and what she learned surprised her.
“This was very much an eye opener,” says Colling, as she reflects on her experience. “As a woman, I had no idea lung cancer was the No. 1 killer. To find that out was a huge shock. It definitely makes me want to live life to the fullest and enjoy everything that I have been given. I definitely think I have a second chance with everything. It was life changing.”
While Colling is currently cancer-free, it’s never far from her mind and she still receives regular checkups. In the beginning, she visited her oncologist every three months, then it became every four months and now she only has appointments twice a year. At the five-year mark, she will only need an annual wellness check. But, just because she is doing well doesn’t mean life is back to normal. She hasn’t decided to try for another child yet because the cancer makes her nervous. She thinks about her diagnosis daily.
Colling not only wants to spread the word about lung cancer, but she also wants to encourage others to be their own advocates. If she had not continually pushed for further testing, her lung cancer would have not been found at such an early stage. She says she’s heard too many stories where a doctor tells the patient there is nothing wrong, and the patient then believes the doctor, ignoring the symptoms that brought them in.
“I am a huge, huge, huge believer of being an advocate of your own health,” Collings exclaims. “I push this daily to people I know. If you are not your own advocate, there is nobody else who will do it for you. You are in control of your own health, your life, your everything. If you think there is something wrong with you, you push for it. Even if the doctors are telling you no, you push for it. It’s your life, not theirs.”
What You Need to Know about Lung Cancer
Chronic cough, shortness of breath, prolonged mucus production, wheezing, coughing up blood, chronic chest pain or unexplained weight loss are all symptoms that may indicate lung cancer. It is important to visit your physician if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, regardless of your smoking history. According to the American Lung Association, approximately two-thirds of lung cancer diagnoses are in people who have never smoked or are former smokers. Don’t wait; the earlier the disease is diagnosed, the better the chances are of survival.
“The problem with lung cancer is that once you have symptoms, it’s often too late,” Dr. McKee explains. “That’s why it’s the No. 1 cancer killer of men and women in the United States. For the 30 percent who are diagnosed with early stage disease, it is discovered by accident. For example, a patient may have sprained their back and pulled a muscle. When an X-ray is done to look at the spine, they see a nodule in the lung.”
However, for people who are at high risk for lung cancer, screening will detect lung cancer in the earliest stages about 75 percent of the time, leading to a cure 90 percent of the time. The American Lung Association recommends all women at high risk receive regular screenings. This could save 13,000 lives a year.
“The screening for lung cancer is a simple test,” says Dr. McKee. “If someone is coming in with a persistent cough, the doctor should get a chest X-ray just to make sure they aren’t missing something. Anyone with a reason to be concerned they may have lung cancer should have a CT scan done.”
Make sure to communicate with your doctor about any concerns you may have and be persistent when necessary. “The only way you can help tackle this disease is to participate in a dialogue with your doctors and each other,” says Dr. McKee.
Gia Miller is a freelance health and wellness writer living in Katonah, New York. She strongly believes in being your own health advocate.