‘Trying to live my best life’
Retired social worker remains optimistic in battle against lung cancer
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2019 (1114 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Alyson Haiart is not a typical lung cancer patient.
Before her diagnosis five years ago, the 61-year-old retired social worker was an avid runner. She ate well, and most importantly, never smoked — the leading risk factor for the disease.
Despite being diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in the fall of 2014, Haiart considers herself lucky.
“I was fortunate because my disease was found before I began showing symptoms,” says the mother of three adult children and partner to Dominique Delisle, retired journalist with Radio Canada.
The cancer was found almost by accident.
During a regular physical at age 56, she had a chest X-ray ordered by her family doctor out of an abundance of caution. It turned out to be a life-saving measure, uncovering two spots on her upper left lung. Following a biopsy confirming the disease, she underwent radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. And in 2015, doctors told her they could find no more signs of the disease.
In many respects, Haiart is an outlier among lung cancer patients.
She is among the roughly 20 per cent of cases not caused by smoking. As well, she developed the disease in her 50s, whereas most people are in their 60s and older when diagnosed.
Furthermore, because she was diagnosed before it had metastasized, her cancer was still treatable.
That’s rare because it is the leading cause of cancer death among women and men.
This cruel reality underscores the recent efforts of CancerCare Manitoba Foundation’s Guardian Angel Benefit for Women’s Cancer event to raise money and awareness, which took place Oct. 28.
While ovarian, uterine and cervical cancers are specific to women, it’s more likely a woman in Manitoba will be diagnosed with breast, colorectal and lung cancers.
“These are the most common cancers among women,” says Dr. Sri Navaratnam, president and CEO of CancerCare Manitoba, as well as an oncologist who treats lung cancer patients.
While this past October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which rarely escapes the attention of the general public, few people may realize November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
And, indeed, lung cancer could use more time in the spotlight, given it accounts for one in four cancer deaths among women.
Breast cancer (which also affects men — albeit much more rarely) is the most common form of the disease in women. As such, it often garners the most media attention and fundraising dollars — and rightly so, given it accounts for about one in four cancers in women, Navaratnam says.
Yet, lung cancer affects women more than people realize. Every year, more than 14,000 Canadian women are diagnosed.
The disease, she adds, used to affect many more men. But the incidence for men has fallen, while stabilizing for women, partly because smoking rates among women have not fallen as much as they have for men.
Since smoking is the No. 1 cause of the disease, Navaratnam urges women (and men) to quit because it reduces the risk. What’s more, the prognosis for surviving lung cancer is roughly the inverse of that of breast cancer.
“Lung cancer five-year survival rates are only around 18 to 20 per cent.” In contrast, Navaratnam adds breast cancer’s survival benchmark is above 80 per cent.
A key reason behind the difficult odds is lung cancer is usually diagnosed in advanced stages when individuals are symptomatic: coughing up blood, experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain.
Due to the challenges in treating the disease in late stages, CancerCare Manitoba is part of a national group working with the federal government to secure funding for formal screening using low-dose radiation CT scans.
“There is more evidence that screening could save lives.”
A provincial program remains a few years away, she adds. What’s more, it would likely be used for high-risk individuals: smokers, former smokers, people with a family history of the disease and seniors.
Yet, this type of screening — had it been in place — likely wouldn’t have helped people like Haiart.
“I was never in a high-risk group, so it’s likely that I would not have been screened.”
As part of her treatment, Haiart undergoes MRIs, CT scans and other diagnostic tests every three months after doctors in 2017 found malignancies in her brain — the same cancer first found in her left lung.
Haiart’s cancer is now considered stage 4 — inoperable and incurable. Doctors have been able to keep it in check thanks to new treatment. She takes an oral medication called alectinib, an ALK inhibitor that blocks an enzyme — anaplastic lymphoma kinase — which is considered the key cause of a type of lung cancer affecting patients under age 60 with no history of smoking.
Rather than fretting about her prognosis, Haiart has decided to live in three-month increments, the span between exams monitoring the growth of the cancer in her brain.
“We have been travelling a lot.” She and her partner recently returned from Europe and plan to visit the Maritimes after her next round of tests this week.
“(Death) could happen any time, so I’m trying to live my best life.”
Time has always been precious, but it’s even more so now, she says. Doctors have cautioned her the medication can only extend her life and is not a cure.
“At some point, my cancer will develop resistance to this drug,” Haiart says.
Still, she remains optimistic the drug will hold back the disease just long enough.
“The hope is that by the time it stops working, there will be another drug to go to that has been developed.”
Updated on Tuesday, November 12, 2019 7:51 AM CST: Adds photos