Kirkland Resident’s Story shows that Lung Cancer Needs Our Awareness, Too

Peg Witham figured it was just a cough, the result of frequent air travel and its germy, recycled air. When weeks of self-medication didn’t work, her primary care physician ordered a chest X-ray that confirmed pneumonia, but also a suspicious mass: Peg had lung cancer, and they had to plot a course of action right away. Her care was moved to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance at Evergreen Health and she started chemo and radiation treatments shortly thereafter. They had to move quickly; lung cancer doesn’t wait until it’s convenient.

In fact, lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer of men and women and takes more lives than breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer combined. Its five-year survival rates are dismal; just 4% for the unlucky patients- the majority- diagnosed after the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body. For those who find the cancer in its early stages, five-year survival shoots up past 50%, and our goal now is to raise awareness- the kind of awareness that gets high-risk people screened today, before they have Stage IV cancer and limited options. 

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Peg, a lung cancer patient advocate, in my role as CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific. Peg is one of the lucky ones. She was diagnosed at Stage III, before her cancer had the chance to spread to other parts of her body and further complicate treatment.

Now more than two years since her last treatment, she feels healthy and vibrant once more. She wants to help raise awareness about lung cancer so others at high risk know about screening technology, and so our society will stop playing the blame game with lung cancer. Stigma can keep patients from seeking social support they need, and reinforces the idea in society that lung cancer is just a “smoker’s problem.” No one deserves lung cancer, and just by having lungs, we’re ALL at risk for this insidious disease.

“I wish I knew that even though I stopped smoking17 years prior, that there was still an opportunity for the cancer to develop,” she says. “I had taken up running. I was healthy. I had no idea that I was at risk.” The American Lung Association has developed a quick quiz to help people determine if they qualify as high-risk and should seek out early detection. and in under a minute you’ll see where you stand.

We know more about lung cancer than ever before, and with advanced tumor testing and research into targeted therapies, there is real hope on the horizon. We also know that less than 1/3 of patients diagnosed with lung cancer are smokers- the other 2/3 have already quit or never touched a tobacco product in their life. You do not need to have smoked to get lung cancer- you just need a pair of lungs.

Renee Klein

President & CEO

American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific