Lung cancer stats, 2015

Data from the Department of Health and Environmental Control shows how deaths from lung cancer in 2015 were much more common than from other well-known kinds of cancer.

In 1978, Shirley Trainor-Thomas was just 17 when she found out she had Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

She went through several rounds of radiation. Later, in 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer as a result of that radiation. Then, in February of last year, she found out she had cancer again, and this time, it was the most deadly of them all.

Trainor-Thomas had been coughing for months and had pain in her side. She thought the coughing was caused by allergies. But when she told her oncologist, they gave her a CT scan and found lung cancer.

Dr. Curtis Quinn said treating Trainor-Thomas' lung cancer was possible because they found it early. He said people should not wait until they are coughing up blood or have chest pain. At that point, it is likely too late to do much, he said.

"If you’re having symptoms, then the cancer is so advanced we’re not going to be able to cure it," Quinn said.

Quinn, a Roper St. Francis doctor, said the hospital system began screening for lung cancer more aggressively in 2014. So far this year, the hospital system has screened 688 people with a history of smoking, compared to 645 in all of 2016. Using a low-dose CT scan, Quinn said they have found 10 lung cancers, nine of which were early stage.

"These are people we can cure," he said.

The low-dose scans are similar to regular CT scans, but deliver a lower dose of radiation. In 2015, Medicare started paying for the screenings.

Quinn said a patient's chances of surviving lung cancer have not improved much since the early 1970s. Most are given a late-stage diagnosis.

Trainor-Thomas described lung cancer as the "red-headed stepchild" of cancers. She found it was difficult to build a network of support when she was diagnosed.

She said when she had breast cancer, there were online resources and support groups galore. Lung cancer, she said, was different because of the stigma attached to it — cigarette smoking is linked to 80 to 90 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trainor-Thomas never smoked, but she said that hardly matters. 

"People look at you like you deserved it," Trainor-Thomas said. "Nobody deserves cancer." 

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.