Ashley Rivas was 26 when she noticed she was getting tired earlier than usual on her runs. Over the next few years, the X-ray technician from Albuquerque, New Mexico, developed a persistent cough and wheezing, which her doctors attributed to exercise-induced asthma. She had other symptoms, too: weight loss, fever, and several bouts of pneumonia. Still, when Rivas finally decided to perform a chest X-ray on herself, cancer was the last thing on her mind.
The image revealed a mass on her right lung that turned out to be a malignant tumor. Rivas was 32 and had never smoked a cigarette in her life. "I want people to know lung cancer can happen to anyone," she says.
Rivas has joined the American Lung Association's Lung Force campaign, to spread the word that her disease isn't just a smoker's affliction. "It's true that the majority of people with lung cancer have some history of tobacco use," says ALA spokesperson Andrea McKee, MD, the chair of radiation oncology at Lahey Hospital Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. "Having said that, 15% of patients diagnosed with lung cancer have no history of tobacco use—and they may be quite young."
Other known risk factors aside from smoking include a family history of the disease, as well as exposure to certain air pollutants, such as asbestos, arsenic, radon, even diesel fumes, says Dr. McKee. Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide; and each year, it kills more women than breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer combined.
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If it's diagnosed early, the disease is actually highly curable, Dr. McKee says. Luckily this was the case for Rivas. She had her tumor removed in 2013, and is now thriving. (She ran a half-marathon last year!)
But only about 16% of cases are caught at stage 1. "Usually it’s like a 7- to 8-millimeter nodule sitting in the middle of a lung that doesn’t have any symptoms associated with it," says Dr. McKee. Most patients are diagnosed later, once the tumor has grown large enough that it's "pushing on an airway, resulting in some breathing problems," she explains.
That's what Marlo Palacio experienced just before the holidays in 2013, when she developed a cough unlike any cough she'd ever had before. "I would feel like I was out of breath or gagging," she says. At first, the social worker from Pasadena, California, assumed she'd picked up a bug from her toddler son. But six weeks later, the cough hadn't gone away. Doctors diagnosed Palacio—an otherwise healthy, 39-year-old non-smoker—with stage 4 lung cancer.
At stage 4, lung symptoms like Palacio had (and others such as pneumonia and coughing up blood) may be accompanied by problems elsewhere in the body, such as back pain, bone pain, headaches, weight loss, and confusion, says Dr…