No one could have been more surprised than Patricia Ross when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. “Lung cancer!” Ross says. “I never touched a cigarette in my life. I was shocked. Everyone was.”
Overall, 10 to 15 percent of the about 226,000 new cases of lung cancers expected to be diagnosed this year will occur in non-smokers, with another 50 percent occurring in former smokers, according to the American Cancer Society.
Two-thirds of the non-smokers who get lung cancer are women, and 20 percent of lung cancers in women occur in individuals who have never smoked, the ACS states.
Although the cause of Ross’ cancer is unknown, the 75-year-old Crown Point resident had been exposed to second-hand smoke, one known cause of lung cancer. Her parents smoked, and both her first and current husbands smoked, although Ross said they “didn’t smoke a lot.”
“When I was young, everyone in my generation smoked,” she says. “My mom asked me if I wanted her to teach me how. I said ‘no.’ I didn’t wanted to smoke because of how cigarettes smelled.”
Ross learned she had lung cancer in 2005 after three years of testing.
“I had gone to my doctor in 2002 because I had a pain in my chest that wouldn’t go away,” she says. “I had a CAT [spiral computed tomography] scan but nothing showed. Then I had a PET [positron emission tomography] and the doctor saw a little pinhead spot on my lung.”
The doctor, Sharon Harig, M.D., told Ross the spot could be from a previous bout of pneumonia, but advised her to have a CAT scan with contrast every six months. Ross complied.
The October 2005 scan indicated the spot had grown.
“Dr. Harig said it had to come out,” says Ross, who was then referred to a surgeon.
“He said it was malignant,” Ross says. ”Every doctor I saw asked me if I smoke. They assume when you have lung cancer that you smoked. The surgeon did, and when he made the report he put on it that I smoked. I made him change it.”
During her surgery at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart, the doctor removed the upper left lobe of Ross’ lung. She was hospitalized for five days.
“I didn’t know if I would live or die,” Ross says. “They had to send away to a pathologist. I sat three days in the hospital and didn’t know which way the door was going to swing. But even the pathologist said I was lucky. It was stage one [cancer], so I didn’t need any follow-up treatments.”
To make sure the cancer doesn’t reoccur, Ross had a full-body bone scan annually until 2010. Since then, she receives a special blood test that was developed for the same purpose.
Ross, who works as a tax clerk for White Lodging Services, considers herself extremely fortunate to be treated by a doctor who kept urging her to have the six-month CAT scans.
“The surgeon told me my doctor was pretty persistent to insist on follow-up testing, because I didn’t look like the typical lung cancer candidate,” Ross says. “I thank her for me being alive. She saved my life. Most doctors would have given up.”