Sporty, non-smoker, perfectly healthy – nevertheless, Angela got lung cancer, which cannot be operated on. With what treatment her tumor shrank to a tenth and what things are important in addition to medicine when it comes to cancer.
At first it was just a dry cough. Sometimes it was a little worse, then it almost disappeared. That was three years ago and Angela Schmidt (name changed), now 52 years old, married, two daughters, didn’t take these slight symptoms seriously, she had them checked out by the family doctor, but she couldn’t find anything.
Up until then, Angela had been perfectly healthy. As a teacher of mathematics, physical education and English, sport has always been a part of her life. Every week she jogged six kilometers three times, cycling and swimming were on the agenda almost every day, she ate healthily, was slim and of course she didn’t smoke. “Smoking would never have been an option for me, as a small child I was constantly exposed to the unpleasant smoke because a close relative smoked heavily,” she explains her dislike. Back then, people simply didn’t know that passive smoking was also unhealthy.
When she suddenly bled when she coughed, she immediately went back to the family doctor. She wasn’t there, but the agency did a thorough examination and immediately ordered a computed tomography (CT). The result: a tumor in the lungs about ten centimeters in size. It was an incredible shock, Angela remembers today, because cancer, she thought like many others, only other people get, and “that can’t be, I’m healthy, I’ve never smoked in my life .”
While smoking is the top risk factor for lung cancer, at least 15 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked. Environmental influences such as passive smoking and air pollution also play a role here. With around 55,000 new cases per year in Germany, lung cancer is the second most common cancer, and it is usually difficult to treat, also because it is often recognized late.
Angela immediately decides with her husband to be open and honest about having a serious illness. “We don’t know how things will continue, but we assume the best” – that’s how she tells her daughters that she is affected. It’s not easy for the two girls. They try to be brave, but they suffer a lot.
Angela also talks to her friends and colleagues about her illness. She had never believed that there would be people who would react with “it’s her own fault, if she hadn’t smoked”. But both she and her husband were and are often confronted with “lung cancer always affects smokers” and the question of whether Angela is a smoker. “Comments like that are probably not made with breast cancer or leukemia,” she reports of the bitter experience.
After the CT diagnosis, a biopsy, i.e. tissue removal, should provide more information about the tumor. The examination shows that it is a non-small cell lung carcinoma, an adenocarcinoma. The tumor is inoperable because of its unfavorable location. However, the good news is that the genetic analysis of the tumor tissue shows that certain mutations are present that can be treated with drugs in a targeted manner. “So I was lucky in disguise,” she says.
But after the biopsy, she gets severe pneumonia, has to go to the hospital, and her life is in jeopardy. However, Angela recovers and is able to leave the clinic and begin therapy. In her case, that means taking tablets twice a day, but no surgery, no chemotherapy, and no radiation for the time being.
In Germany, different active ingredients are available against different mutations in lung cancer, such as gefitinib, erlotinib, afatinib and crizotinib. Angela’s tablets contain the active ingredient crizotinib. Like an off switch, it shuts down tumor growth. This effect started very quickly in her case and is still going on today, almost three years after the start of treatment. This is not the rule, because the effects of these drugs often wear off after about two years. Then you can switch to other active substances against this mutation.
But like any effective drug, the tablets can cause significant side effects. But here, too, Angela was lucky, she only had a few side effects, such as blurred vision, bone pain and tiredness. “But the tiredness can also come from the tumor, I don’t know,” she reports.
However, one thing is certain: the tumor shrank from ten centimeters to three in a very short time. In between, it sometimes grows a little again, but it’s hard to understand why that is. In the spring, Angela therefore had 15 radiation treatments, which reduced the tumor to just under a centimeter. The treatment was relatively short and low-dose compared to other forms of radiation therapy for cancer because the tumor was no longer as large. “I hope that I can live with that for a long time!” the 52-year-old takes on. The cancer could then only be a chronic disease and not a death sentence – a tendency that is emerging for many types of cancer, by the way.
“I’m optimistic, try not to live in fear – I also don’t let myself be negatively influenced by the current political situation, the war and so on,” Angela summarizes her motto in life. Because fear is bad for your health – that’s why she kept Corona as far away as possible.
Contact with other women in the self-help group Lung-Power-Women also helped her a lot. The project came about when the mother of one of the daughter’s classmates also developed lung cancer. Together with other affected women – mainly young women, non-smokers and lung cancer with certain genetic mutations – they started the group with the support of cancer activist Karen Abel, who has already attracted a lot of attention with her podcast “Let’s talk about cancer”. The focus here is on breaking down prejudices, exchanging views among those affected and helping people to help themselves.
“No one who hasn’t had or has cancer can know and empathize with what it’s like – what you think and feel, for example when the disease progresses and the last way is to go,” explains Angela. But she is optimistic, thinks positively, is grateful for everything that is good and does not quarrel with fate. It is particularly important to find out what else you can do for yourself and your health.
She doesn’t want to leave everything to medicine, but instead wants to take the initiative. She has completely changed her diet to organic and regional, no longer eats meat – although she does not want to recommend everyone to avoid meat. “Everyone should listen to their gut feeling, it’s good for some, not so much for others,” she says tolerantly. Meditation and yoga also give her mental and physical balance.