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Lung cancer can hit anyone, smoker or not: widow

Jeremy Chen, with his son, Xavier. - Contributed photo
Jeremy Chen, with his son, Xavier.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Nov. 17, 2010 was Jeremy Chen's 30th birthday, a day that included going out for lunch with co-workers.

It was also the day the North Burnaby resident first noticed it—a shortness of breath walking from the restaurant to the parking lot.

"He had asthma his whole life, he didn't think much about it," recalled his wife, Scarlett.

Still, Jeremy made an appointment with his family doctor, who then figured it was simply bronchitis related to colds that he had been passing back and forth with his year-old son, Xavier.

But within a week the symptoms worsened. He could barely walk up short flights of stairs. The doctor sent him for x-rays and within a month of his first symptoms, he had a diagnosis: he had lung cancer and it was spreading.

Jeremy's lung cancer was at Stage 4 by the time it was discovered. Chemotherapy had no effect and by March 27, he was gone.

"Everything happened very quickly," said Scarlett, 32. "The doctor considered his disease as very aggressive."

What was difficult to understand is that Jeremy never smoked and was never exposed to any toxins like asbestos. He worked in an office. There was no history of cancer in his family.

"We were completely blindsided by the whole thing. Complete and utter shock is an understatement."

She said Jeremy was likely more realistic than she was about his prognosis.

"I think he kind of knew to a degree. Stage 4 is Stage 4. There is no cure."

Calling her late husband "extremely brave," she said he always took the approach of looking forward to what the next options were.

Scarlett Chen is sharing her husband's story to raise awareness that non-smokers do get the disease and to reduce the stigma that comes with it.

"Definitely there's an underlying belief [from others] that this had to have been brought on from something," she said. "If it was brain or breast [cancer] nobody would even question that.

"Anyone who has lungs can get lung cancer is what it boils down to."

While lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, it doesn't receive the profile of other cancers partly due to the stigma that it's related to tobacco use, said Veda Peters, tobacco education coordinator for the B.C. Lung Association.

Lung cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths amongst 20 to 44 year olds, she said.

In 2011, about 25,300 Canadians will be diagnosed with lung cancer and 20,600 will die from it. Of that number, about 85 per cent of cases will occur in present or past smokers, and 10 to 15 per cent in non-smokers.

The survival rate is relatively low. Five-year survival rates for breast cancer in young adults is 85 per cent, for testicular cancer 96 per cent, and for lung cancer, only 22 per cent.

After smoking, the second most common cause of lung cancer is exposure to radon gas, potentially found in any home, said Peters, who encouraged people to have their homes tested for the odourless gas. Other potential causes include asbestos exposure, second-hand smoke, and air pollution.

More research is needed, she said, noting effective early screening programs don't really exist and it usually shows no symptoms until it's often too late.

Symptoms people should get checked out by a doctor include a persistent cough, unexplained chest pain, shortness of breath, and blood in phlegm.

"If anything sort of remotely positive can come out of this, it's public awareness through being able to tell [Jeremy's] story," Scarlett Chen said.

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

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