A few weeks ago, during the height of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it was hard to go anywhere without seeing a sea of pink.
Pink Campbell’s Soup cans at the grocery store. Pink mixers, potholders and spatulas at cookware shops. Pink ribbons on, well, just about everything.
That was October.
Now it’s November, and it’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
Lung cancer doesn’t get the attention of breast cancer, but it’s an even bigger killer of women.
“People are shocked, if it comes up in conversation,” says Tawni Spargur, a 47-year-old Spokane Valley resident. “I don’t believe they think it’s a woman’s disease, especially in middle age.”
But Spargur knows lung cancer doesn’t discriminate based on gender.
Doctors found a cancerous tumor in her lung last year. Two days later, a surgeon removed the upper right lobe of one of her lungs.
“It was unbelievable,” says Spargur, a single mom of two who works as an insurance claims manager. “I was stunned.”
Spargur spent four months getting her strength back and just recently passed her one-year check-up. Her cancer was caught at an early stage, before it had spread.
“I’m getting accustomed to the shortness of breath,” she says. “Some days it’s worse than others.”
Dr. Joseph Rosales, a hematologist-oncologist in Spokane, is seeing increasing numbers of women in his office being treated for lung cancer.
Unlike breast cancer, lung cancer is often difficult to detect until it’s advanced, making it much harder to successfully treat.
“If we can find a good screening method, that’s where we’re going to have a lot of the gains in lung cancer,” Rosales says.
It took Karla Ruddach, a 43-year-old Greenacres resident, six months to receive her lung cancer diagnosis.
Ruddach, a nonsmoker who says she has always been in good health, suddenly developed a cough about three years ago. One doctor told her her lungs sounded clear, she says. A few months later, still coughing, she went for another physical.
“Once again, they told me I was too healthy to have anything wrong with me,” says Ruddach, a mother of three who works as a bookkeeper.
After nearly half a year, she started coughing up blood. An X-ray found the mass in her lung. Later scans showed spots on her liver, her spine and throughout her lungs.
She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, the most advanced type.
“It made me mad; that was six months of the tumor growing,” Ruddach says.
She underwent six months of high dose chemotherapy, which shrunk all of the tumors. And she takes a daily dose of Tarceva, a promising, relatively new drug designed to stop tumor cells from growing.
“So far, so good,” she says.
Quitting smoking, of course, is the best thing you can do to reduce your risk of lung cancer – whether you’re a man or a woman.
“That’s kind of the slam dunk,” Rosales says. “People know that’s easier said than done.”
But a growing percentage of women developing lung cancer have never smoked.
Women, especially, need to be persistent with their physicians if they are coughing, have shortness or breath or just feel like something isn’t right, Ruddach says.
“I would tell any woman, if they are coughing, you know your own body better than anybody else,” she says. “You tell them you want an X-ray.”