Jill Feldman with radiation oncologist Gaurav Marwaha, MD, left, and medical oncologist Philip Bonomi, MD.
By Jill Feldman
I have been fighting lung cancer indirectly, and now directly, for 36 years, and most of it has been an uphill battle. I lost my dad and two grandparents to lung cancer when I was 13, and then my mom and aunt, Dede, died of lung cancer when I was in my 20s. I was shocked and upset that in the 14 years between my dad being diagnosed with lung cancer and my mom being diagnosed, there was not a single advancement in lung cancer treatment, despite it being the No. 1 cancer killer. My family and I felt helpless and hopeless, and while there wasn’t any research on hereditary lung cancer, I knew our familial lung cancer wasn’t just a coincidence.
I did what I could to get educated, be an advocate for myself and my family and to help advance a cause that many were not aware of and/or not interested in. While doing so, in 2009, I was diagnosed with lung cancer at 39 years old. My kids were 6, 8, 10 and 12 — and their only association with the disease was death. They were scared, and my greatest fear was becoming a reality. I was following in my family’s footsteps, and there wasn’t any promising research that convinced me the path would change.
For many years, the only distinction doctors could make was whether a person had small cell or non-small cell lung cancer, and patients had three treatment options: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. It wasn’t even until the 1990s that combination chemotherapy regimens were approved. Still, there was debate whether it was even worth treating lung cancer because in many cases, the toxicity was worse than the disease, and the benefits from chemotherapy were marginal.
Gina meets with medical oncologist Marta Batus, MD, and thoracic surgeon Christopher Seder, MD.
As a lifelong smoker, Gina knew the risks of smoking — but, like many people, she pushed these thoughts out of her mind.
“For years, my very dearest friend and I would sit on the phone together, have coffee and smoke cigarettes,” Gina remembers. “Then she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died from it. Even though I saw what she and her family went through, I was still in denial that anything could happen to me.”
Five years ago, at age 70, Gina got a wake-up call to start taking control of her health: She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She had a mastectomy at Rush and was soon cancer-free. With a new lease on life, she began running, cut down to three cigarettes a day, and started listening to shamanic drum chants and doing positive-thinking exercises. She also continued her regular breast cancer follow-ups at Rush with medical oncologist Melody Cobleigh, MD, and nurse practitioner Teri Dougherty, NP.
Still, Gina’s smoking history and age put her at high risk for lung cancer. So at an appointment last summer, Dougherty talked to Gina about her risk factors and suggested that Gina was a good candidate for a lung cancer screening test — a low-dose CT scan that can detect lung cancer at its earliest stages, before symptoms arise and when it may be most curable.
I started smoking at age 18. My dad was a smoker, and he quit so that none of his kids would smoke, but everybody in the family smoked anyway. We were on our own to decide when to quit. There were seven of us, and I was the sixth one to quit. I just got to a point where I thought, “There has got to be something better than this.”
I originally learned about the opportunity to have a lung cancer screening from my family doctor, Jeremy Pripstein, at my annual physical. He explained that the government had a program for a free screening for people who had smoked for a long time.