Editors note:  this article is part I of a two-part series.

Radon Awareness Month – Lung Cancer is NOT Just for Smokers

Did you know that not all cases of lung cancer are due to tobacco use? It’s true.   Many people automatically assume when they hear the words lung cancer that it can only happen to smokers.   According to public health authorities, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized just last week the month of January as National Radon Action Month.

Joining with state, tribal and local public health agencies, they are encouraging all Americans to test their homes for radon. “January is the time when we remind everyone to ‘test, fix and save a life.’ That’s because lung cancer due to radon can be prevented by testing, and if needed, fixing your home. It’s a simple and important way to help safeguard your family’s health,” said Jon Edwards, Director of EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. “Testing is inexpensive and test kits are readily available and easy to use. Reducing your family’s exposure to radon provides peace of mind, knowing that you’re doing the right thing to help avoid the toll taken by radon-induced lung cancer.”

Test your home and make 2017 a safer and healthier year.  Many states offer free radon test kits through their state office of environment. Kits can also be purchased at home improvement stores for as little as $10.00.  You can also visit the EPA’s website to locate test kits or radon mitigators.

Part I:  Lung cancer survivor Jenny White shares her story:

Someone once told me I’d had the “Cinderella” of lung cancer stories!  Although I love collecting shoes, in my story there were no glass slippers and I had already married my Prince Charming.  I love my stepmother and she had sons.  Not many similarities, but the journey was magical.  Or more likely a miracle!

But like Cinderella, cleaning was a part of my life!  Bathrooms were never my favorite and seemed more like a necessary evil.  Who would have ever guessed it would save my life!

But I’ve jumped ahead!

Here’s a little of my back story.  My husband, Kent, and I live in Donelson, a lovely area of Nashville, between the airport and Opryland, that offers mature trees, acre lots and 50’s style ranch houses.  Most of the bathrooms have pastel colored tiles in blues and pinks.  Our bathroom was no different and came with robin’s egg blue tile.  It was a perfect example of the style at the time.  Little tiles with lots of little grout lines that needed to be cleaned!!

To clean all that grout, I would typically pour bleach in a cup and use an old toothbrush to scrub it.  After that, I would spray Scrubbing Bubbles to make the tiles sparkle. In December of 2009, I noticed that some mold had attached itself to the plaster ceiling above the shower. This was no match for my toothbrush so I filled a spray bottle full of bleach and started spritzing. Bleach fumes filled the air and dripped on my bare arms, stinging my skin.At this point, I thought it made sense to go ahead and spray Scrubbing Bubbles while the bleach dried.  (Please know I was smart enough to open the bathroom window that evening). I sprayed once and coughed a little. I sprayed again, coughed some more. On the third spray, I put my shirt up over my nose and mouth and started coughing up a lung.

Instead of cleaning the bathroom, I had gassed myself. The cloud of noxious gasses gave me a horrendous cough plus wheezing and shortness of breath. I was a mess! My doctor was concerned enough about my cough to order a chest x-ray even though he didn’t think I had given myself chemically induced pneumonia. Turns out he was right. I didn’t have pneumonia but the radiologist noticed a nodule on the right upper lobe of my lung. Hmmm…

Because I had no risk factors (for what I never asked)—I had never smoked, lived with a family of smokers or played in asbestos—and my PET scan was negative, I embarked on a series of CT scans, which is the protocol for these types of unknown lung nodules. If after two years, the nodule showed no growth then it was just something I had breathed in that had calcified and was now showing on my x-ray.  It’s quite common in this area of the country, and I was counting on this to be my case.

Of course, I just knew it was benign (because I didn’t smoke), but I compliantly went for my scans. In September 2010, at the age of 49, the third scan showed the nodule (which had been nicknamed Nigel because it was foreign) had grown by 30 percent. It was still small but my research on the Internet said that a growth of 20 percent is a red flag. We had to find out what it was and the only way involved thoracic surgery.

I was sent to a surgeon who said he gave it a 50/50 chance that it was malignant and it needed to come out. I asked what that meant and was horrified that he wanted to fillet me like a fish to find a benign tumor.

Fortunately, I found a surgeon in Nashville who performs video assisted thoracic surgery. On Oct. 5, 2010, a wedge-shaped biopsy of the nodule revealed stage 1A adenocarcinoma or LUNG CANCER!  Stage 1A meant there were no lymph nodes involved and by virtue of removing my right upper lobe that day, I was cancer free.

Although by surgical protocol I was cancer free, I decided that since I had cancer, I wanted to see an oncologist. I’m so glad I did because he had my tumor tested for a driver mutation. As it turns out, it was positive for the EGFR gene mutation.  This information is so important to have as it helps predict what chemotherapy may be most effective in treating your cancer for the best outcome.  Based on this finding, I was advised to take Tarceva, which is a targeted therapy for the EGFR gene mutation, for 6 months.  Since we didn’t know if there might be more, undetectable nodules, I took Tarceva prophylactically.

My career at the time was as a pharmaceutical sales representative. Calling on primary care physicians.  I thought I was managing life pretty well considering I was missing a lobe of my lung and taking chemo, but you know how you don’t realize how bad you feel until you start feeling better?  That was me!  After I stopped Tarceva, I realized how the fatigue side effect had dominated by life.   I suddenly felt like the Energizer Bunny!  It took me most of the summer of 2011 to learn to live a balanced life, that I didn’t need to do everything that came my way because I was afraid I’d miss out on something.  I viewed life very differently after lung cancer.  Life was meant to be lived!!

But seriously, lung cancer!?! How? I was trying to live a healthy life. I exercised, tried to eat right and even ran a half marathon 10 days before my surgery. Really? I could understand if I developed diabetes because it runs in the family, or maybe heart disease, but both my grandmothers lived well into their 90s and, I assumed, I would too.

Like me, maybe you thought you had to smoke to get lung cancer?  You’d be correct in that smoking puts you at the greatest risk of developing lung cancer but the #2 cause of lung cancer is the prolonged exposure to radon gas.  Radon, is a naturally occurring, tasteless, odorless gas that is found throughout Tennessee and the United States and is responsible for killing 22,000 Americans a year.

My surgeon asked me if I had ever tested our home for radon gas.  Since I didn’t know why I had developed lung cancer, I thought maybe I should test and see. I bought a test kit and the results revealed that radon levels in our house were slightly elevated.  As it pertains to Radon, the EPA has recommended that when you test and find a level of 4 or higher, you should take action and mitigate or fix your home.” Mine averaged 4.6 over a 90-day period.  I thought that wasn’t so bad.  My radon mitigator helped put it all into perspective for me.  A level of 5.0 was equal to smoking a ½ pack of cigarettes a day.  I said let’s fix it!!

I will never know if my lung cancer was a result of radon gas exposure, second hand cigarette smoke or just bad luck but I what I do know is that I want to reduce my risk of re-occurrence and maybe help keep someone else from hearing the words “You have lung cancer.”

For me, reducing that risk, included buying an inexpensive test kit, testing my home and having a certified radon mitigation expert install a system to normalize radon levels in my home.  Testing is simple and inexpensive.  Mitigation is an easy and typically a budget friendly fix.

Please don’t delay!   Check your house today!

I struggled after my diagnosis to know what to do next.  I know how lucky I am to have been diagnosed early.  Raising awareness and creating a compassionate community to show support and compassion for lung cancer patients is my passion.  I’m proud to say that we now have a bi-monthly meeting of lung cancer survivors at Gilda’s Club of Nashville.

I am forever grateful for my early diagnosis.   I think my sweet husband put it all in perspective at our family Thanksgiving in 2010.  When asked what he was most thankful for that year, he replied “Bleach and Ammonia”.