I was a busy suburban working mom putting my energy into my job, my family, my friends, and trying to lead a healthy lifestyle. I exercised routinely. I never smoked. I drank a glass of wine now and then.
In 2016, I started a new job as an attorney at Expedia. I was delighted with the interesting workload and my amazing new coworkers. I was learning about travel. I was learning a new job. I started to cough.
I went to the doctor for the nagging cough and was misdiagnosed with bronchitis. When the cough did not disappear with inhalers, x-rays and scans were ordered and I was diagnosed with stage III B lung cancer. I underwent a course of harsh treatments and by mid-2017, I was told things looked good. The cancer was gone.
In early 2018, I had trouble breathing again. I ran out of breath walking short distances. The cancer was back, this time stage IV.
I learned that lung cancer is the definition of the art of medicine. When lung cancer is diagnosed, it is usually advanced, late stage, and there is no clear path. Doctors have differing views. But it’s your life: your journey. You shouldn’t take the first answer that’s given to you. You need to get second and even third opinions, and you need to seek out the care best for you.
Because my doctor performed biomarker testing of my cancer cells, it was determined that my cancer was positive for the ALK mutation. ALK occurs in 4-5% of lung cancer patients and tends to strike individuals who are otherwise healthy, lead active lifestyles, and are younger than other lung cancer patients (as young as 16). In addition, the ALK mutation is not attributable to any environmental risk factors.
Being ALK positive led me to a private Facebook group specifically for people with ALK positive lung cancer within three weeks of discovering my mutation. This private Facebook group, ALK Positive, provided me vital information and welcome support from similarly situated cancer warriors. ALK Positive led me to LUNGevity.
Being ALK positive means that I qualify for new targeted therapies. At first, I chose traditional treatments (chemo and radiation), but upon reoccurrence, I chose targeted therapies. Targeted therapies have some side effects, but not nearly as challenging as traditional chemotherapy and radiation. For now, though, while the treatments are working, I can go about my normal life with only minor changes.
My cancer has not been a secret, but until recently, I had not made public statements about it. However, this November, I was featured in an internal piece at Expedia. So why did I decide to go public? I am not looking for pity. I am looking for a cure. Lung cancer has t-boned my life. If it can hit me, it can hit you too. Yet, few people understand their risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer - on average, 1 in 15 men and 1 in 17 women will be diagnosed with lung cancer.
I want people to understand their risk of getting the disease, whether or not they have ever smoked. I want people to understand that non-smokers are often misdiagnosed for a long time because many in the medical community do not associate lung cancer with non-smokers even though 60% of the newly diagnosed are never smokers or have given up smoking a long time ago. If you see a doctor for any side effect that could be related to lung cancer (cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, wheezing, unexplained headaches, etc) and the doctor asks if you have smoked, I recommend answering: “Do whatever you would do if I said YES.” The statistics support screening nonsmokers for lung cancer.
Also, few understand the grim survival statistics of lung cancer (433 dying each day in the US from lung cancer and 19% five year survival rate). It is the cancer that people don’t want to discuss. Many people have a negative opinion of a person with lung cancer. I have personally seen people become visibly uncomfortable when they find out that my advanced cancer is lung cancer – including some medical professionals in cancer care.
But here’s the thing: I have incurable cancer; I refuse to feel guilty because it is lung cancer. And frankly, shame on anyone who stigmatizes someone with lung cancer. I truly believe the stigma has kept this cancer from getting funding toward a cure. And as long as the stigma exists, there will not be sufficient funding. Lung cancer accounts for 25% of the cancer deaths in the US but receives less than 6% of the federal funding for cancer research.
I never thought I would be advocating for lung cancer. But I am fighting for my life. Please help me take lung cancer out of the shadows.
This Lung Cancer Awareness Month—
Educate yourself about lung cancer by checking out Lung Cancer 101, read more stories about people’s journeys with lung cancer on Voices from the Community, help raise awareness in your own community by finding an event near you, and keep up-to-date on LUNGevity and the lung cancer community by subscribing to our newsletter.
Teresa benefited from biomarker testing. Hear stories from others who have also benefited from testing and learn more by checking out our new Inhale for Life biomarker testing videos.
There is so much we can do this November, Lung Cancer Awareness Month, to help spread education and awareness about the disease and continue to build this community. Find out more by checking out our Lung Cancer Awareness Month page.
Teresa Wiant lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, Rodney Tullett. Teresa and Rodney are the proud parents of two amazing young men – one in high school and one in college. Teresa was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016.