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"I got lung cancer even though I never smoked"

Prevention logo Prevention 22/05/2016 Hallie Levine
© Provided by Rodale Inc.

Linda Wortman was perfectly healthy, athletic, and enjoying her work as a flight attendant when she found out she had lung cancer. She was shocked to learn that someone who had never smoked could get this disease—and that it kills more people every year than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. This is her story.

In 2007, I was standing at the boarding door greeting passengers when I started to choke. It felt as if I'd inhaled a sip of coffee, and for a minute I thought I was going to die. When it happened a few more times, I wondered if I'd developed tuberculosis or SARS due to all my traveling. But when I went to see my local doctor, he brushed off my concerns as well as my request for a chest x-ray, telling me my symptoms must be stress-related. 

Shortly after, when I started feeling short of breath while cross-country skiing, I figured I was just getting older (I was 57 at the time). And when I developed a pain in my upper left shoulder, I assumed it was related to having previously shattered my wrist.

Then, at the end of the year, I headed to the Mayo Clinic for my yearly flight physical. (My husband Jerry, who is a pilot, is required to have an annual physical there.) The staff is always thorough, but this time it turned into a 3-day ordeal involving a battery of tests. My doctor sent me home to enjoy Christmas, but insisted that I come back in early January for a CT scan of my lungs; she suggested that I might have a virus or pneumonia.

© Provided by Rodale Inc. I had the scan on January 9 and was scheduled to work a flight to Europe that evening. I was departing the Mayo Clinic when my physician stopped me and told me to go to the pulmonary medicine department immediately. 

I walked up the stairs, knowing I could beat the elevator to the 18th floor. It never occurred to me that something might be seriously wrong, so when the head of the department told me I needed a lung biopsy, I was incredulous. He showed me a whole wall lit up with my CT scans and said, "We think you have lung cancer."

I snapped: "You have the wrong person; I never smoked!" He shook his head and explained that lung cancer can happen to anyone at any age. I was stunned. I learned I had non–small cell adenocarcinoma, which is the most common kind of lung cancer. Seventy-two hours later I was in surgery, breathing with the aid of a heart and lung machine. Surgeons had to remove all of my upper left lung lobe along with half of my lower left lung lobe.

I was in complete disbelief that this could happen to me, but research shows lung cancer is on the rise among people who have never smoked. One study found that 8.9% of cases in 1995 involved nonsmokers; by 2013 it was almost 20%. The reason for the uptick is still a mystery, but exposure to second-hand smoke, radon, and/or air pollution may play a role. Whatever the cause, survival rates are dismal: Even though my cancer was caught fairly early (I had stage 1A), I was horrified to learn that I had only a 15% chance of living at least another 5 years.

Determined to tip the odds in my favor, I started peddling away on a bike in physical therapy just 3 days after surgery. But nothing about recovery was easy. I could barely breathe, and when I returned to my home in Montana, the high elevation (we live at 6,500 feet) worsened my discomfort. I took one look at the four flights of stairs and told my husband, as I gasped for every breath, "There's no way I can do this." 

The next few weeks were agony. Everything—even sitting and sleeping—seemed to take a tremendous amount of effort. So when I got a call from the Mayo Clinic asking if I wanted to join a research study on meditation and paced breathing, I agreed. I would have done anything at that point to feel better. Dr. Amit Sood sent me a DVD with instructions to do 15 minutes of breathing exercises in the morning and another 15 at night, but I ended up doing them for hours at a time. Meditating calmed my mind and body; I really feel like it saved me.

Three months later, my husband insisted I return to cross-country skiing. Before I had lung cancer, we could cross-country ski 12 kilometers in 80 minutes; the first day back, it took an hour to go 200 feet. It hurt to breathe or bend over, so Jerry tied my shoes. He stayed by my side, coaxing me along, and every day I could feel myself growing stronger. 

Three years later, I ran my first 5K and came in second place in my age group—despite my impaired lung function and never having run before. I have since run a 5K in all 50 states, and I've completed 10Ks in Canada, Colombia, and the Netherlands. My goal is to run on every continent.

© Provided by Rodale Inc. To encourage others to stay fit and raise lung health awareness, my husband and I founded a small nonprofit in 2014. The Wortman Lung Cancer Foundation organizes "Running Lungs" fun walks and runs, 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons; we've already raised over $22,000 for lung cancer research. 

In addition to fundraising, I'm passionate about sharing my story and educating others. Most people assume that I must have smoked, and they don't seem to believe me when I tell them I never did. They're shocked when I tell them that over 50% of worldwide lung cancer cases in women occur among never smokers, and that 20% of those who die from lung cancer each year have never smoked. Even health insurance companies don't get it: Mine said that they wouldn't cover my medical bills unless I attended a nicotine rehab program—even though I never smoked!

Whether you go through a pack a day or have never even touched a cigarette, don't ignore your symptoms. If you have a lingering cough, chest pain that worsens with deep breathing or laughing, shortness of breath, or unexplained fatigue, you must insist that your doctor investigate. Get a second opinion if you need to. Don't assume you're not at risk; delaying could cost you your life.

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