Awareness • Early Detection • Treatment • Research • Survivorship

Kiowa woman aims to change stereotype about lung cancer as a ‘smokers’ disease’

COURTESY Of: Elbert County News
BY: Shanna Fortier

Kathy Weber is setting out to change the image of lung cancer.

“It’s not a smokers’ disease anymore,” she said. “Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.”

She should know: The physically active Kiowa wife and mother, a lung cancer survivor, never smoked.

According to the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. One of the least-researched cancers, Weber hopes that by sharing her story she can help raise money for study of the disease.

Experts say research is critical because doctors often find lung cancer in later stages when it is less treatable. New advances can hold great promise for screening, early detection and personalized therapies.

Weber, 48, a neonatal nurse practitioner, was training for a figure bodybuilding competition in the spring of 2014 when her shoulder started hurting. The pain made it difficult for her to do push-ups. She went to her physical therapist, John Graham, who when he couldn’t find anything wrong suggested a chest X-ray and ultrasound of her lymph nodes.

“I thought he was crazy,” Weber said. “I felt great and was back to training hard … ”

But she trusted Graham, so she went for the scans.

“I was a healthy, very active, nonsmoking female with no family history, who thought she had a tumor in her chest because her PT said so,” Weber said.

The ultrasound was normal. But the chest X-ray showed a tiny pulmonary nodule.

About a week later, a doctor told her the nodule might be a fungal infection. But being in the healthcare industry herself, Weber said this diagnosis didn’t make sense to her. She didn’t have any other symptoms.

A second opinion from the radiology department at Castle Rock Adventist Hospital, where she works, said the nodule looked cancerous.

“I went from needing my shoulder looked at to now having cancer,” Weber said. “How could this be?”

She was diagnosed with Stage1a adenocarcinoma and in July 2014, she had the right upper lobe of her lung removed.

After spending six days in the hospital with a chest tube, doctors sent Weber home with the advice to walk to help her recovery, which she described as “scary at times, yet so rewarding.”

The morning after being discharged, she set out for a walk along her driveway, which is long and has an incline. She made it down just fine. But walking back up was another story.

“I literally could not breathe,” she said. “I wondered how this was all possible — I was still in shock. Just one week prior I was running up this very driveway, doing sprints. Now, I was doubled over, wheezing and gasping for breath.”

But Weber pushed. Each day, she took a few more steps.

Two weeks after her operation, Weber was walking two miles a day.

“Every day, I was aware of each breath and learned to love the sound of my harsh, wheezy breathing,” Weber said. “Each breath became my new motivation and strength.”

With the help of her trainer, Dave Fujii at American Pro Gym, Weber competed in her next figure bodybuilding competition 10 months after her surgery.

“As crazy as it sounds, I feel like I just needed to do it to feel normal for me — to bring me back to feeling strong and whole,” Weber said. “My competition was a way for me to regain some control. I had lost a lot of muscle mass, but was happy with my results and the reward of getting on stage.”

Weber attributes a large part of surviving lung cancer to early detection, which she believes was possible because of her physical health and strength.

Although she still struggles with breathing during workouts, Weber continues to train hard and hopes to compete again next summer before her 50th birthday.

“I’ve got to have a goal,” she said, “to keep pushing toward something.”