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In her late 30s, Jessica Steinberg led a healthy life. A busy mother of two, she taught fitness classes, from step aerobics to boot camp, and was training for a marathon.But when a rib injury sent her into the hospital for a chest x-ray in 2011, Steinberg...

Lung cancer is not just a smoker's disease | Toronto Star

In her late 30s, Jessica Steinberg led a healthy life. A busy mother of two, she taught fitness classes, from step aerobics to boot camp, and was training for a marathon.But when a rib injury sent her into the hospital for a chest x-ray in 2011, Steinberg...

Lung cancer is not just a smoker's disease | Toronto Star

In her late 30s, Jessica Steinberg led a healthy life. A busy mother of two, she taught fitness classes, from step aerobics to boot camp, and was training for a marathon.

But when a rib injury sent her into the hospital for a chest x-ray in 2011, Steinberg learned she had lung cancer. At first, her doctors thought it was a localized tumour, but they later discovered the cancer was invasive and aggressive — and had spread throughout her body, into her lymph nodes, her bones and her brain.

It was a shocking diagnosis for a woman with no risk factors. “I was never a smoker. No radon in my home. No exposure to chemicals. No family history. It was really out of nowhere,” Steinberg, now 44, says.

Steinberg, a Canadian-American citizen now living in Oregon, is among those raising awareness of the smoking-related stigma surrounding lung cancer — and how the disease can hit anyone, even people who’ve never lit a cigarette in their life. “It’s not just a smoker’s disease. There’s a changing face of lung cancer,” she says, during a recent interview in Toronto.

The disease kills more than 20,000 Canadians every year — more than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined — and accounts for 25 per cent of the country’s cancer deaths, according to Lung Cancer Canada. Both men and women are at risk, with an estimated 13,600 new male cases and 13,000 new female cases of the disease for 2015, the Canadian Cancer Society notes.

And they’re not all smokers. More than 85 per cent of lung cancer cases in Canada are related to smoking tobacco, according to CCS data, but that leaves 15 per cent of cases that aren’t.

“The majority of patients I see (with a lung cancer diagnosis) have either stopped smoking, or never smoked,” says medical oncologist Dr. Parneet Cheema, a specialist in thoracic cancers at Sunnybrook Odette Cancer Centre.

Even so, smoking-related stigma is something Cheema and Steinberg both see regularly.

“Do you ever ask a prostate cancer patient — ‘Did you get enough fibre?’” questions Steinberg. “People don’t do that. They don’t link other cancers to behaviours.”

Smokers and non-smokers alike need to keep an eye on concerning symptoms, Cheema notes, particularly given lung cancer’s aggressive nature and typically poor prognosis. Those symptoms could include a lingering cough, coughing up blood, chest pain, hoarseness, fatigue and shortness of breath.

For Steinberg, it’s been more than five years since her cancer diagnosis. She’s gone through surgery, chemotherapy, chest and brain radiation and eventually learned she has a specific gene mutation driving her cancer.

Steinberg calls the finding a “game-changer,” and she’s now participating in an oral chemotherapy clinical trial that’s helping her lead a full life despite her Stage 4 advanced metastatic cancer. Her goal is to live long enough to see her boys, aged 14 and 11, have her grandkids.

She’s also trying to make the most of her diagnosis by opening people’s eyes to the realities of the disease.

“Anyone can get lung cancer,” she says. “If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.”

Lung cancer by the numbers

  • Lung cancer accounts for 25 per cent of all cancer deaths in Canada.

  • The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 17 per cent.

  • More than 20,000 Canadians die each year because of lung cancer.

Source: Lung Cancer Canada

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