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A Famous Wife Focuses Attention on Young Lung Cancer Patients

  • October 21, 2005
  • Number of views: 2648
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From KSDK News, October 21, 2005

It''s a statistic most smokers don''t want to hear. Many non-smokers don''t want to focus on it. Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in this country. But it took a famous, young woman to show the world anyone, at any age, can get it.

The recent lung cancer deaths of news anchor Peter Jennings and actress Barbara Bel Geddes put two very famous faces on the public health issue of lung cancer. But it was the diagnosis of Dana Reeve, the wife of the late paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, that showed the seemingly young and healthy are not immune. Reeve is 44. She does not smoke. She is now battling a cancer that kills 60 per cent of those diagnosed within a year.

Connie Kurowski was 44 when she was diagnosed. This wife and mother of three was also a non-smoker.

"I had a chronic cough and it was very annoying, more to my family than myself and everybody said let''s go in and get this checked out," she recalled.

For the next two years, she was treated for recurring bronchitis, tested for allergies and even tuberculosis. It wasn''t until a new doctor suggested surgery to remove something that looked suspicious on a CT scan that she found out she had lung cancer.

"Hard to believe and I only found out when I woke up from surgery and the pathologist had told my husband," she said.

According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, 172,570 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed this year. Three per cent of those patients will be under 45.

"We see, I think, several patients in their 30''s. We''ve seen young women. Occasionally once a year we''ll see a patient in his 20''s. It does happen," said Dr. Alec Patterson, chief of Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital''s Siteman Cancer Center.

Dr. Patterson says smoking is the overwhelming contributor to rates of lung cancer. Some 87 per cent of all cases of lung cancer are believed to be the direct result of lighting up. Doctors believe the environment plays a part, too, including things like exposure to asbestos and industrial toxins. In young, healthy, non-smoking patients, a third factor is at play.

"They probably have a genetic predisposition as well. There''s an intense interest at the National Cancer Institute and other agencies to try and figure out what that genetic predisposition is," Dr. Patterson said.

While lung cancer is still the number one cancer killer in this country, there has been progress on a number of fronts, including imaging.

Some 15 years ago CT scans were long and difficult to do. Today, they take five seconds, doctors said.

"In former years, we really weren''t doing a very sophisticated job of treating these patients and now with our imaging and better surgical strategies as well better drugs for chemotherapy, superior strategies for radiation, I think we''ve got quite a few more excellent treatment options than we did a few years ago," explained Dr. Patterson.

Kurowski has a strong family history of lung cancer. Both her mother and grandmother smoked. Both died of the disease when they were 51. Kurowski is now 50. She is a rare, six year survivor of a cancer that kills 85 percent of those diagnosed within five years. Yet, she still worries about what the future holds.

"I''m just so busy with my three children, that takes it off my mind.

But first I would go for a CAT scan every three months and every six months. Now we''re down to a year and the only times I''m really fearful is when its close to that time and you just hope and pray it hasn''t come back," she said.

Dr. Patterson and his colleagues at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, are trying to unlock the secrets behind the genetic triggers of lung cancer. They''ve developed a large tumor bank and are conducting gene analysis on the specimens. The hope is to identify genetic abnormalities that might indicate who is at risk for a poor outcome after diagnosis.

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