‘Here’s How I Knew I Had Lung Cancer’: One Patient’s Story with Relatively Low Risk Factor

Updated: Jun. 22, 2024

It's not only due to smoking, as this survivor's story might help demonstrate—says one expert doctor: "All you need to be at risk of developing lung cancer is a lung."

Lung cancer, encompassing both small cell and non-small cell types and affecting men and women almost equally, stands as the second most common cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, the year 2024 is expected to see approximately 234,580 new cases and about 125,070 deaths due to lung cancer.

Predominantly diagnosed in those aged 65 and older, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the country, responsible for nearly 20% of all cancer fatalities. Each year, lung cancer claims more lives than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

However, there’s a silver lining. The incidence of lung cancer is on a decline, partly due to the decrease in smoking rates and advancements in early detection and treatment. Says Aaron Mansfield, MD, a Mayo Clinic lung cancer oncologist: “Although tobacco use is clearly the largest risk factor to develop lung cancer, there are many other risk factors, and risk factors we don’t know. All you need to be at risk of developing lung cancer is a lung.” Awareness of risk factors, such as exposure to secondhand smoke, radon gas, asbestos, and having a family history of lung cancer, is also crucial.

Despite the importance of early detection, lung cancer symptoms often appear only after the cancer has advanced. Dr. Mansfield explains one of the challenges that may be to blame for this: “Many of my patients have been diagnosed as having pneumonia. They’ve received many rounds of antibiotics that were not beneficial. They make their way to us when a mass that was thought to be pneumonia on a chest X-ray never improved.”

Key symptoms of lung cancer to watch for include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • persistent cough
  • coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • unexplained weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • bone pain
  • jaundice
  • headaches (or other nervous system changes)

Screening also plays a pivotal role in combating lung cancer. Annual low-dose CT scans have been proven to save lives and are recommended for high-risk patients. (Data from the CDC in 2023 stated that cigarette smoking is the number-one risk factor for lung cancer, linked with 80% to 90% of all lung cancer deaths.)

Following recent updates, the US Preventive Services Task Force now suggests screening should start at age 50 for those with a 20-pack-year smoking history, broadening the net to catch more cases earlier. A “pack year” is a term used to describe the amount of tobacco a person has smoked over time, calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. For smokers, quitting now can significantly reduce the risk of lung cancer.

Ahead, you’ll read the personal story of Ron Barnett, a 65-year-old Philadelphia native, who shares his journey from a late-stage lung cancer diagnosis to finding stability and hope through a clinical trial. Ron shared that he smoked “occasionally” in his late teens to early twenties, but quit when he got married. It so happens that Barnett’s home state of Pennsylvania is demonstrated to be one region with the highest radon rates, which some experts say is the second-highest lung cancer risk factor. To learn more about which areas around the country may be most vulnerable to radon exposure, read up on a recent radon study.

Here’s how I knew I had lung cancer

By Ron Barnett, as told to Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO

It’s a strange thing, getting older. For awhile you might shrug off every ache and pain, but hit your early sixties, and suddenly you’re keeping a ledger on every little twinge asking yourself if it’s the big one. But lung cancer? That thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Walking into the emergency room that brisk autumn morning in 2019, I was convinced the sharp pains in my chest were heralding a heart attack. You see, I’ve been a fighter all my life—raised in a tough neighborhood, served a stint in the military, and even beat a nasty case of pneumonia in my fifties—but nothing could’ve prepared me for the battle that lay ahead. The ER visit was supposed to be a quick in-and-out precaution to ensure my ticker was still ticking right. However, the doctors, after a flurry of tests and scans, found something unsettling—a spot on my liver. “It’s concerning,” they said, recommending a closer look.

That revealed a truth I wasn’t ready to face: Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. Stage 4 is the most advanced type of cancer and usually means the cancer has spread, or “metastasized,” to another organ. In my case, it had spread to my liver. A quick online search suggested my chance of surviving three months was maybe only around 25%. Fortunately, advances in science and medicine were in my favor.

But when I first heard those words, the room spun. The thought of “cancer” was a shock. My wife stood by my side, and together, we navigated some swift and fierce emotions.

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Treatment after I knew I had lung cancer

After the diagnosis sank in, I felt a kind of determined grit take over. The doctor briefed me on my battle plan: A three-drug chemotherapy regimen. It would be brutal, the doctor warned.

Let me tell you, chemo is no walk in the park. It’s a beast unlike anything I’d faced before, but deep down, I understood it was my ticket through this storm.

But just as I was getting the hang of this new, unwelcome routine, the treatments began to falter. My doctor advised me that it seemed my body was no longer responding. The cancer was outpacing the chemo, and my options were dwindling fast.

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That’s when my doctor, seeing the desperation in my eyes, suggested a new course of action—a clinical trial. The uncertainty of it was terrifying—But what do I have to lose?, I remember thinking. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, but I hung onto hope in this unknown.

The clinical trial included some new medications, regular monitoring, and ongoing doctors appointments…but slowly, almost imperceptibly, the tide began to turn. My cancer, this relentless force that had upended my life, started to show signs of stability. Three years have passed since then, and my cancer remains stable. It’s a precarious peace, but I’ll take it over the alternative any day.

I know I am one of the lucky ones, and I don’t take that for granted. This journey has been anything but easy, but it’s taught me more about life, resilience, and the importance of hope than I could’ve ever learned otherwise.

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To anyone going through a similar diagnosis, let me say this: Knowledge is power. Research your condition, understand your options, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. A skilled medical team can make all the difference in the world, but so can your own understanding of what you’re facing—and clinical trials? I know not every patient can say this, but in my case I found it was the lifeline I was looking for. Maybe that’s a benefit of having a type of cancer that affects so many other people: With resources being allocated toward research, doctors are doing so much to make progress with new treatments these days.

I share my story not for sympathy but in the hope that it might light a path for someone else. Stage 4 lung cancer is not an easy diagnosis to live with, but it’s not the end of the road. With the proper treatment, a great medical team, and the courage to explore new options, you can find a way to keep fighting.

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