It started with a small lump on her collarbone. Toronto-based Anne-Marie Cerato, just 30 years old, had no other symptoms that hinted she would be among the Canadians diagnosed – more than 26,000 in 2014 – with lung cancer. The disease kills more people than the top three other cancers combined – prostate, colorectal and breast.

Overcoming the stigma

When she told people about her cancer, she experienced firsthand the stigma attached to it – an assumption someone with it must smoke. That was the case with Cerato, too: “The reaction I got most wasn’t, “How are you?” or “I’m sorry.” It was, “Did you smoke?” In fact,15% of those diagnosed with lung cancer are lifelong non-smokers, while 35% more are ex-smokers, who in many cases quit years before their diagnosis.

The tie between smoking and lung cancer is well documented, but it’s only one element of a much bigger picture. Smoking is linked to many other types of cancer and chronic disease, yet those patients do not experience the same stigma. And it’s not the only cause of lung cancer. Passive (also called secondhand) smoke, exposure to asbestos and radon gas are also factors.

"15% of those diagnosed with lung cancer are lifelong non-smokers, while 35% more are ex-smokers, who in many cases quit years before their diagnosis."

Lung cancer is the deadliest and most commonly diagnosed type of cancer (aside from non-melanoma skin cancer). In Canada, it receives only one percent of private donations and just seven percent from government sources. Without adequate funds to conduct research, the battle against lung cancer is extremely challenging.

Finding hope

There is one bright spot and it’s why Cerato is alive six years after her diagnosis –incredible since the average five-year survival rate for lung cancer is a paltry 17 per cent. After the learning of her disease, she had underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. One year later, she was in remission, but the cancer had spread to her other lung and was ineligible for additional surgery or radiation.

She had no symptoms, so doctors told her to wait before beginning treatment again. Waiting to get sick wasn’t acceptable to Cerato. As she tried to come to terms with having a much-shortened life, she was searching for hope. She found it. “I discovered the mention of a promising new drug being tested in trials,” she says. “My oncologist helped me to become part of one.”

New drug development

A test of Cerato’s tumour showed that her cancer cells carried a rearrangement in the ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) gene – a trait that occurs in an estimated three to five percent of lung cancer cases. The new drug she had stumbled upon was designed to target this type of lung cancer. She has continued to take the drug (two oral treatments daily) since 2011.

Today, Cerato is feeling healthy and strong, considering a return to work and preparing to get married. She’s also a board member with Lung Cancer Canada. She’s determined to give others with her disease hope by pushing for changes in attitude and for public educating. “It’s a brave new world right now in terms of drug development,” she says. “All patients deserve to have access to effective treatment and a chance of living a long, healthy life.”