Four years ago, Ginny Hicks felt “a swelling, a puffy spot” under her left arm.
Not exactly a lump, it still caused some concern. She immediately scheduled a mammogram; the results were negative.
Further tests were ordered.
A chest CT scan revealed a tumor in the middle lobe of her right lung; a PET scan showed it had metastasized to the lymph nodes under her left arm. The nodes along her sternum and in her upper abdomen also were affected.
After a bronchoscopy, the tumor and lymph nodes were biopsied.
The diagnosis: Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer.
The prognosis: There is no cure.
The five-year survival rate for stage 4 is less than 10 percent, far lower than that of colon, prostate or breast cancer.
The news was shocking to the then-58-year-old.
After retiring in 2011 following stints as principal at Griffin Creek and Roosevelt elementary schools and teacher at White City Elementary, Hicks was looking forward to a new season in her life.
An advocate of healthy eating and rigorous exercise her entire adult life, and a non-smoker, she never thought of herself as a candidate for lung cancer.
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. Sixty percent of those with lung cancer are former smokers and 21 percent are current smokers. However, nearly 18 percent are non-smokers.
Since her diagnosis, Hicks has become impassioned about lung cancer awareness. She was chosen as a guest speaker for Asante’s “Shine a Light on Lung Cancer” event Saturday to raise awareness of a disease she says has been stigmatized by the notion that smokers bring the disease on themselves.
She is advocating for more funding for lung cancer research and the development of better diagnostic tools. Fighting lung cancer, she believes, should become a public health priority.
“I’ve been an educator my whole life, this is my new job as an educator,” she says.
About 14 percent of all new cancers are lung cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 222,500 new cases will be discovered in 2017.
Lung cancer makes up 26 percent of all cancer deaths.
According to the Lung Cancer Alliance, 427 Americans die every day of lung cancer — more than of breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.
Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type seen in non-smokers. It is more often diagnosed in women than in men, and it is more likely to occur in younger people than other types of lung cancer.
About 40 percent of non-small cell lung cancer patients are diagnosed with the disease when they are already in stage 4.
Hicks says she’s learned in just the last three weeks of four acquaintances who have been diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell cancer. Three are women.
She’s met women in their 20s, 30s and 40s with lung cancer; one diagnosed this year is only 27 years old, she says.
In retrospect, Hicks says there may have been warning signs she had the disease.
She remembers she had a chronic cough.
“I didn’t ignore it. I would go to the doctor and we treated it as seasonal allergies,” she says. “It would go away, and then come back. And, treated again, it would go away again, for a little while.”
She also recalls nagging pain in her mid- to upper back, and some discomfort in her torso.
She chalked it all up to tension and stress.
“I was too busy to be sick,” she says.
A gene mutation that would mark her as predisposed to the disease was ruled out.
“It’s a mystery,” she says as to why she contracted lung cancer.
Hicks, who has lived in the Rogue Valley for 40 years, blames environmental pollution. The inversion layer that settles into the Rogue Valley every winter, and her years of working in schools near lumber mills and orchards that were regularly sprayed in the “old days,” may have played a role, she says.
Hicks underwent chemotherapy for 18 months. Chemotherapy or radiation, or a combination of both, is the course of treatment typically prescribed at this stage.
She is now in her second round of a clinical trial of an immunotherapy drug. The infusion every three weeks is meant to build up her immune system so that her body can battle the disease on its own.
She says she hasn't experienced the nausea and fatigue she did with the chemotherapy or any other side effects.
The 62-year-old also has resumed a fitness regimen that would leave most of us in the dust.
Her goal is to walk three to four miles every weekday; five to seven miles on the weekends. She walks year-round and follows a route that is mainly uphill.
“I like taxing my lungs on the hills,” she says.
While there is currently no cure, Hicks says she’s “banking on” more dollars for research, improved diagnostic tools and new and better drug treatments.
She has traveled to Washington, D.C., twice to attend the Lung Cancer Alliance Summit and spoken to congressional aides for Reps. Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, lobbying for Congress to pump more dollars into lung cancer research at the National Institutes of Health.
Figures released by the Lung Cancer Alliance show that in 2016, the National Institutes of Health spent far less researching lung cancer than the other three leading cancers — $1,500 per lung cancer death as compared to $19,250 for breast, $9,400 for prostate and $5,800 for colon.
Hicks finds these statistics “unacceptable.”
She says she does “not want to pit cancers against one another.”
“But, lung cancer is killing more people than any other.”
Research, early detection and education can make a huge difference, she believes.
“The improvement in the five-year survival rates for breast cancer makes a good case,” she adds.
In the last decade, the five-year survival rates for both breast and prostate cancer have improved to more than 90 percent; prostate cancer has a nearly 100 percent survival rate.
Lung cancer has a less than 20 percent five-year survival rate.
Hicks doesn’t let the numbers define her.
“I haven’t put my life on hold,” she says.
“It’s been an emotional journey, a challenging one,” she adds. “I never got angry or mad. There was sadness initially.”
And, she admits, “chemo made (the disease) mentally harder to combat.”
She also confesses that some days “are emotionally not as good as others.”
Her husband, Morrie, however, reminds her “that we are guaranteed only this time now … there are no guarantees we will have tomorrow, whether we are healthy or have a chronic disease.”
In the meantime, she continues her work as an advocate for lung cancer awareness, and offers support and counsel to others with the disease.
“It helps me to help others,” she says.
— Reach Grants Pass freelancer Tammy Asnicar at firstname.lastname@example.org.