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Lung cancer death: It’s not predictable

November 28, 2018

Lynn Sherwood-Humphries knows better than anyone that lung cancer doesn’t change just the lives of smokers.

The disease also stalks people like her daughter Lauren Sherwood-Sutherland, an otherwise healthy nonsmoker. Her 25-year-old daughter died May 21 after battling the disease. Traditional lung cancer prevention strategies wouldn’t have saved her.

“Lung cancer isn’t what you think it is,” Lynn Sherwood-Humphries said. “If you have lungs you can get lung cancer.”

During lung cancer awareness month, which is November, and all the months to come, Sherwood-Humphries said she’s an unstoppable “mom on a mission” trying to raise awareness for the disease and how imperative it is to find it early.

“If there’s something to be learned from this, why not start the conversation,” she said. “It’s not a sexy conversation. It’s a hard conversation to have, but let’s have it.”

There’s never a good time to be diagnosed with small cell lung cancer like Sherwood-Sutherland had. The American Cancer Society says a mere 10 to 15 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses are small cell and the condition usually isn’t diagnosed until it’s metastasized, or spread. Those people have a roughly 2 percent survival rate.

At the time of her diagnosis last December, Sherwood-Sutherland had been married for two years and was raising a 3-year-old daughter, Violet.

She was also working for the family business, Jackson Hole Shooting Experience, after years of trying to figure out her path.

“One of the first things she said when she was diagnosed and heard her prognosis, she looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I finally found what I wanted to do for a career and I was so damn good at it,’” Sherwood-Humphries said. “‘Why now?’”

In Wyoming and nationwide, lung cancer is a force to be reckoned with. It’s the leading cause of cancer death in the state, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.

Despite Wyoming having an above- average smoking rate and fewer screening centers per person than average, the state has a lung cancer incidence rate lower than the average. The rate of new lung cancer cases in Wyoming is 47.8 per 100,000 people, lower than the national rate of 63, making Wyoming the sixth lowest state in the country.

According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in the United States, causing more deaths each year than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. The World Health Organization 2018 cancer fact sheet states lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, accounting for 1.69 million new cases in 2015.

It’s not just about smoking

In addition to smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke and family history, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that comes from rock and dirt and can become trapped in houses and buildings.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, radon causes about 20,000 cases of lung cancer a year, and nearly 1 in every 15 homes in the country is thought to have high radon levels — which can’t be seen, tasted or smelled.

Wyoming is considered a Zone 1 Radon area, meaning it has the highest potential to have elevated radon levels, but it’s worth noting Sherwood-Sutherland was living in Arizona when she was diagnosed. Studies have shown that 33 percent of the homes tested in Wyoming have elevated levels; in Teton County that number is closer to 41.6 percent.

Wyoming Department of Health radon tests around the state found that Teton County had the third highest levels of radon in the state, with an average test of 7.03 picocuries per liter, or pCi/L. Homes in Weston County had an average test of 8.14 pCi/L, and Lincoln County had an average test of 9.98 pCi/L.

Teton County Environmental Health has short-term radon detection kits available for $10 at the Public Health Building at 460 East Pearl Ave. If elevated radon levels are detected, residents are urged by Teton County’s Health Department to contact a professional radon inspector.

Caught too late

The first signs of Sherwood-Sutherland’s lung cancer didn’t seem like cancer at all. They seemed like a headache that wouldn’t go away.

“She had a young family and was just making ends meet and starting a new career and didn’t want to go to the hospital,” her mother said. “By the time we did find it through the MRI the cancer from her lungs had already spread, and that’s how they found it.”

There were innumerable lesions — meaning too many to count — and a 4-by-6-millimeter tumor close to her brain stem.

“She literally laughed, she giggled, and said, ‘How can this be?’” Sherwood-Humphries said. “‘How? I’m 25.’”

She had reason to be surprised. Lung cancer is mostly a disease of the elderly. The U.S. National Institute of Health National Cancer Institute statistics review from the years 1975 to 2015 found that in 2015, 86 percent of those with lung cancer were 60 years of age or older.

Sherwood-Sutherland began palliative doses of chemotherapy and whole brain radiation to extend, not save, her life. While many tumors shrank, the cancer continued to spread into her stomach and spine. But the side effects of the treatments — nausea, vomiting, balance and neurological issues — eventually forced Sherwood-Sutherland to reconsider her decision in the face of a terminal illness.

“She said, ‘I want my daughter to know I did everything I possibly could, but it’s not making the quality of my life better,’” Sherwood-Humphries said. “She was ready to live and get out and drive up a mountain and see the pretty sights instead of spending her remaining days in a chemo room.”

When people think of lung cancer, they think of smokers. Smoking, the main cause of small cell and non-small cell lung cancer, contributes to between 80 and 90 percent of lung cancer deaths, according to the American Lung Association.

But of all smokers, only 10 to 15 percent actually develop lung cancer.

The resulting stigma is partially why lung cancer research lacks the funding, research and public awareness of other cancers.

“I came across that personally, and she definitely did as well,” Sherwood-Humphries said. “When I would share the news with family and friends, the immediate response was, ‘Well, did she smoke?’”

Looking for blessings

Despite their uphill battle, Sherwood-Humphries said she and her daughter worked to find a blessing every day. They managed to find them, she said, even on the darkest days.

“I still carry that motto,” her mom said. “Some days it’s the only thing that gets me out of bed, and sometimes I find so many by sunrise that I almost feel guilty being able to find joy again.”

Hence the name of Sherwood-Humphries’ website, Oddly Grateful, where she’s offering a new fact about lung cancer every day of the month of November. She also chronicles how she’s dealing with grief.

“I’m processing the fact that I don’t get to hear her laugh,” Sherwood-Humphries said. “I don’t get to see her hold her daughter and read her a story.”

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