GUEST OPINION: You’d be surprised who can get lung cancer
The public generally doesn’t think of lung cancer affecting people who are in their 20s or 30s — let alone someone who is seemingly fit and healthy and who has never smoked. I want to spread the word that lung cancer can affect people who are young and healthy, because I am 36 years old and have been living with lung cancer for the last six months.
My pulmonologist at Valley View, Dr. Akrum Al-Zubaidi (known as Dr. Aki), would tell you that I am everything you don’t think about when you think about lung cancer. I am young, I have never been a smoker, I am fit, and I am an avid runner and cyclist.
It all started with a persistent cough about six months ago. I was working 40 hours a week for the Forest Service, 20 hours a week for SkiCo all while attending graduate school. I thought I was just spreading myself too thin and could not shake what I thought was a common cold. But when the cough didn’t go away after six weeks, I decided to see my primary physician, Dr. Dan Smith at Roaring Fork Family Practice. After the results of my X-rays, he was concerned with what he saw and referred me to Dr. Aki at the Lung Center at Valley View.
It was there where I experienced technology that combines detection, diagnosis and staging in one procedure. The Lung Center at Valley View is one of only 14 hospitals in the country to offer this advanced technology, called Electromagnetic Navigation Bronchoscopy — a GPS-like technology to locate, test and detect a lesion in the lung while Confocal Endomicroscopy enables the pulmonologist to see individual cells in the farthest reaches of the lung.
What did this all mean for me? A quick diagnosis. From the time I met with Dr. Smith to Dr. Aki and all of their tests combined, it took just eight days to know that I had Stage IV lung cancer. Without this advanced technology, the typical time is six months. And six months can mean the difference between surviving or not.
I also sought a second opinion with visits to M.D. Anderson in Houston, because it’s ranked as one of the nation’s top cancer centers. Since I had no experience with lung cancer, I had no idea how much equipment was needed to diagnose and treat it. My experience at M.D. Anderson is where I learned that what Valley View offers in terms of services is truly on par with the top cancer treatment centers in the country.
The doctors at Valley View worked together to make sure I had the best care possible. My oncologist, Dr. Armando Armas, initially prescribed a chemo schedule after consulting with Dr. Paul Bunn, the head of the University of Colorado Comprehensive Cancer Center. CU tested me for gene therapy since cancer — but not lung cancer — runs in my family. They found a genetic mutation in the lymph nodes in my shoulder. Together, Drs. Armas and Bunn created my ultimate treatment plan.
The doctors in both Denver and Houston told me that we are close to managing lung cancer like we manage diabetes. But we are not there yet. Researchers are heading that way, and we need more funding approved to prolong the quality of life for so many people.
November happens to be Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Lung cancer kills more Americans than breast, colon and prostate cancers — combined. It is the leading cause of cancer death nationally and in Colorado. Many people don’t realize that nearly 80 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer are people who have never smoked or former smokers who quit decades ago.
My main message: I want to educate people and I want to debunk the stigma that you do not bring lung cancer on yourself. It can be genetic; it can environmental. But what really matters is that it can be cured if it’s caught early enough, and soon we will have the medical knowledge to manage it so people can live with it, just like people can live with diabetes.
We are fortunate to have the quality of care, caliber of doctors, research and state-of-the-art technology afforded through Valley View. I had no idea what the standard was for lung cancer care. Having also seen M.D. Anderson and University Hospital firsthand, I am blown away by how Valley is on par with these prestigious hospitals. All right here in Glenwood Springs.
Valley View is also trying to help raise awareness. They will host a lighted vigil at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, in the Grand Lobby of the Calaway-Young Cancer Center as part of a national campaign to raise awareness for lung cancer. I will be there along with others to share my story. I hope you will join me.
Ben Carlsen is a Carbondale resident and lung cancer survivor.
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