Jenny White

“More women will be diagnosed with lung cancer than breast, ovarian and cervical cancers combined. More folks who never smoked will be diagnosed with lung cancer than those diagnosed with melanoma, brain and thyroid cancers combined.”

I never thought cleaning my bathroom would save my life. I mean, who does!

I considered the chore to be a necessary evil and in December 2009, I dutifully grabbed my weapons of choice and started the process. Those “usual weapons” were bleach and Scrubbing Bubbles, or for you chemistry aficionados out there, bleach and ammonia.

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 grout lines that needed to be cleaned!!

To clean all those grout lines I would typically pour bleach in a cup and use an old toothbrush to scrub the grout. After that, I would spray the Scrubbing Bubbles to make the tiles sparkle.

This time was different. 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 but coughed even more.

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 so was I.

By the way, don’t you have to smoke to get lung cancer? Evidently not! All you need are lungs to get lung cancer. Approximately 20 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer never smoked and 60 percent had stopped smoking 15- 25 years prior to their diagnosis. They did what they were asked to do. They quit smoking but still got lung cancer. That means 80 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses occur in non-smokers or smokers who quit.

Little known facts: More women will be diagnosed with lung cancer than breast, ovarian and cervical cancers combined. More folks who never smoked will be diagnosed with lung cancer than those diagnosed with melanoma, brain and thyroid cancers combined. Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death yet receives the least amount of federal research funding, and I found this to be offensive.

I struggled after my diagnosis to know what to do next. I knew how lucky I was to have been diagnosed early, and I wanted to do something to raise awareness and join a local community to show support and compassion for lung cancer patients. I found no such group. Instead I found that the stigma of lung cancer was alive and well.

Instead of getting mad, I decided to make a change. If I couldn’t find a local group to plug into, I would create my own. That’s when I partnered with Lung Cancer Alliance to bring the first local chapter of a national lung cancer organization to Nashville.

The mission of Lung Cancer Alliance is “Ending injustice and saving lives through an alliance of advocacy, education and support.” Our intentions to fulfill this mission statement locally includes conducting bi-monthly monthly lung cancer support groups at Gilda’s Club of Nashville, creating awareness events like our Shine A Light on Lung Cancer Vigil in November and partnering with other organizations to advocate for lung cancer research, screening and treatment.

Soon more opportunities presented themselves. I joined the Tennessee Cancer Coalition in the summer of 2011 and was presented with a copy of the Tennessee Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan. In it were the objectives and strategies waiting to be put into action. I searched the table of contents for the lung cancer chapter and I found…nothing. Lung cancer was lumped into tobacco related cancers.

The next edition was due out in 2013. I asked if we could add a lung cancer chapter and set about coordinating collaborations with surgeons, oncologists, researchers and policy experts to provide suggestions for primary prevention, early detection and treatment of lung cancer. I am so proud that we’ve taken the first step to seeing lung cancer as the disease instead of tobacco.

I joke that I am a lung cancer “ho” because I will talk to anyone, anywhere about lung cancer. I have had the pleasure of partnering with Saint Thomas Health Services, the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network and Relay for Life, American Lung Association, Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center’s Patient Advocacy Board, the Research Advocacy Network, Gilda’s Club of Nashville and now Biodesix.

I think I was a cause waiting to happen and it all started with cleaning a bathroom. I am so grateful for my early diagnosis. 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.”