I lost my husband, Dan, to lung cancer in April 2013. Dan had all the risk factors for lung cancer. He was a former heavy smoker, quit 11 years. He lost his sister to lung cancer when she was only 62, and Dan had COPD. In January 2011, I talked to our primary care physician about the possibility of screening Dan using low dose computed tomography (CT) scan (LDCT). The National Lung Screening Trial had been stopped early having met its end point of 20% reduction in mortality with LDCT scans, however, the results were not published until June 2011. Our primary care physician didn’t know the trial and the test was not covered by Medicare.
Eight months later, in October 2011, Dan was diagnosed with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma.
I read everything I could about lung cancer. We tried just about everything that was available to us: a clinical trial for maintenance chemotherapy (chemo) after induction chemo, genetic tumor testing, radiation. We tried to get an experimental lung cancer vaccine, and we consulted with experts at Dana Farber and Yale. On February 14, 2013 Dan entered home hospice care. Dan died in my arms two months later, at 10:21 am on April 12, 2013.
As I was helping Dan with his lung cancer journey, I was saddened by the stigma associated with lung cancer due to smoking. When people found out that Dan had lung cancer, the first comment was always ‘Did he smoke’? Those comments bothered me, but what really made me sad is that Dan himself felt he “deserved” lung cancer because he had smoked. He said to me too many times ‘I did this to myself.’
Shortly before Dan died, I decided to become a lung cancer advocate to raise awareness about lung cancer screening, to fight the stigma associated with lung cancer, and to help other patients and caregivers navigate the difficult lung cancer journey. I started by volunteering for the American Lung Association and Free to Breathe. I also volunteered at Hartford Hospital and helped them set up their free lung cancer screening program. I went back to school to get a second masters degree, a masters in public health, to gain the skills and knowledge (and credibility) to be a better advocate. I also started working part time at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center two years ago helping them with their lung cancer screening program.
Now, 3 ½ years after Dan died, lung cancer screening is recommended for a high risk group of current and former smokers and covered by Medicare and insurance. It has the potential to save more than 12,000 lives a year. We need to get the word out on screening so everyone that meets the eligibility criteria has an opportunity to get screened. Lung cancer screening was too late to save Dan. Let’s make sure it’s not too late for anyone else.