Melissa Bender: 'Lung cancer is not just a smoker's disease'
For Melissa Bender, the nightmare started with an upper respiratory infection that wouldn’t go away, plus a little more fatigue than usual and a little shortness of breath when climbing stairs.
After about three weeks in which antibiotics didn’t seem to be working, she started to think it might be pneumonia, so her husband insisted she go to the emergency room.
“When they did the CT scan, they found a tumor on my right lung,” said Bender, a 43-year-old mother of two who moved to Texas three and a half years ago. “Before that, I was running on a treadmill and as healthy as can be. So, it was a shock to us to find out I had lung cancer.”
How it developed is still a mystery to Bender. She had never been a smoker and had never really been around much second-hand smoke.
Bender had a degree in chemical engineering from Mississippi State University and worked in that field before she became a stay-at-home mom nine years ago. She feels confident she was never exposed to chemicals that might have contributed to her condition.
“There are no symptoms until it’s pretty progressed,” said Bender, whose Stage 4 cancer is a mutation of epidermal growth factor receptors. “Many are diagnosed at a late stage because there almost no warning signs.”
“We need to break the stigma that lung cancer is just a smoker’s disease,” she said. “About 20 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.
“Anyone can develop lung cancer,” said Sandra Curphey Borne, executive director of the Houston chapter of the American Lung Association.
More people in the United States die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer, according to the Center for Disease Control. In 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women.
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer now causes more deaths than colorectal, breast and prostate cancers combined. An estimated 158,040 Americans are expected to die from lung cancer in 2015, accounting for approximately 27 percent of all cancer deaths.
The rate of new lung cancer cases over the past 37 years has dropped for men (28 percent decrease), while it has risen for women (98 percent increase).
On May 30, the local ALA chapter sponsored the Lung Force Walk at the University of Houston. The walk aimed to raise funds for research, advocacy, education and awareness –– not only for lung cancer, but also for asthma, COPD and other respiratory conditions aggravated by air pollution.
Borne said the ALA has the support of celebrity spokespersons, like singers Kelly Pickler and Jewel, who have personal and family connections to lung cancer. Another spokesperson is actress Valerie Harper who was diagnosed with terminal metastatic lung cancer in 2009 and initially given only months to live.
Last May, Harper spoke to Congress about providing more federal funding for cancer research and told them, “I am a year and four months past my expiration date.”
Harper is one of the lucky ones. The U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute reports the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 54 percent for cases detected when the disease is still localized within the lungs. However, only 15 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. For tumors that spread to other organs, the five-year survival rate is only four percent. More than half of people with lung cancer die within one year of being diagnosed.
Borne also has a personal commitment to fighting the disease; her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer the day after she was offered her job at ALA.
“This movement...every day it’s my job,” Borne said, “But, every day and every night, it’s my personal mission, and the mission of my family also.”
In addition to the walk, the second week of May was designated as Turquoise Takeover, Borne said. The movement asked newscasters to wear turquoise on the air and worked to bathe buildings in turquoise light to raise awareness.
Meanwhile, Bender is fighting her personal battle with the support of her husband Eric, 13-year-old daughter Maddie, and her nine-year-old son Matthew.
“The love, support and prayers of my family and friends are what have kept me strong,” Bender said.
Some of her good friends put together a team, Mamas for Melissa, for a fund-raising event in February. Bender met Borne at that event and agreed to serve as an ambassador for the Lung Force Walk.
Bender’s oncologist has given her plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Her current treatment consists of a pill called Tarceva®. The company's website explains Tarceva® is not a chemotherapy drug, but is a particular type of therapy that affects certain signals –– those EGFR cells that have mutated in Bender’s lungs –– that cancer cells require to grow.
Five months after the nightmare began, Bender’s recent scans show the medication appears to be working.
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.