The nurse had a shooting pain in her side.  It was lung cancer - and she had never smoked

The nurse had a shooting pain in her side. It was lung cancer – and she had never smoked

When Saundra Moore felt pain in her side, she visited her doctor, who ran some tests, but everything seemed normal and the pain subsided, so she forgot about it. About a year later, the pain returned – and it had intensified.

“The pain was worse,” Moore, 64, of Queens, NY, told TODAY.com. “In the ER they were basically trying to figure out what kind of pain it was.”

After a barium CT scan, doctors noticed two lumps on her lungs and they recommended she see a pulmonologist. After further tests and a biopsy, Moore learned what was wrong: she had lung cancer. The former intensive care nurse was stunned – she had never smoked.

“I was very surprised. Even my pulmonologist was very surprised. He said, ‘Saundra, I’m looking at you and you’re a very healthy person,'” she recalled. ‘has passed.”

Side pain reveals an unlikely cause

When Moore first felt pain in her side, she visited her doctor who performed tests. Everything came back negative and the pain disappeared. But when he returned a year later in 2020, the situation worsened and she went to the emergency room. This time they performed a CT scan with a contrast agent, which showed the nodules.

“I just had this discomfort in the upper right corner of my back,” she says. “They found incidental findings, which were on my left side, not my right side, and the incidental findings showed two nodes on my lower left lung.”

ER doctors did not make a diagnosis, but they urged her to see a pulmonologist to learn more. When the pulmonologist first saw the scans, he also wasn’t sure what to make of the spots.

“Basically they weren’t sure either,” Moore says. “I was not symptomatic. I had no difficulty breathing. I had no cough, no hoarseness… which were the typical signs, and I don’t smoke.

Saundra Moore was stunned when she was diagnosed with lung cancer: she had never smoked.  It was caught early and she was successfully treated.
Saundra Moore was stunned when she was diagnosed with lung cancer: she had never smoked. It was caught early and she was successfully treated. Courtesy of Saundra Moore

She underwent a biopsy, which revealed she had carcinoma, and she saw a few oncologists to figure out what her treatment options were. Some have suggested more conservative approaches. She then met Dr. Raja Flores, director of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Health System.

“He said, ‘I won’t watch you. I’m going to remove the lower lobe because I don’t want to have to come back and do something again,” Moore says.

Upon reflection, she realized that was what she wanted.

Moore’s nodes rested on the outer wall of the lung, and Flores used minimally invasive surgery to remove them and the lobe. She had stage 1 lung cancer, but each lump was a different type of cancer.

“She actually had two different cancers in that lobe,” Flores told TODAY.com. “We see (two cancers at once) enough, but no, it’s not common.”

While in the hospital, Moore was heading to the bathroom when she passed out. It was then that they discovered that she had developed blood clots in her lungs, also called pulmonary embolism, which extended her hospital stay by six days. Doctors wanted to monitor his breathing and heart rate and prevent the clot from traveling to his heart or brain.

“Although I had a pulmonary embolism, my oxygen levels were still pretty good,” she said. “Emotionally it took a lot out of me because I’m usually a very independent person, and for me it was having to depend on others to do things for me, which I didn’t like.”

Lung cancer in non-smokers

Many people believe that only smokers get lung cancer, but experts say that’s not true. “The main risk factor for getting lung cancer is having two lungs,” says Flores. “Anyone with two lungs can get lung cancer.”

Although smoking and vaping increase the risk of lung cancer, people who have never smoked can develop the cancer. Flores says if doctors dig deeper, they normally find a likely reason, such as living with a smoker, residing in a heavily polluted area, or being exposed to asbestos or radon.

“They usually attribute it to bad luck, and I don’t think luck plays a role,” he says. “If you developed lung cancer, it’s because you were exposed to it.”

While Moore sought help because she was in pain, Flores says it’s not a common sign of early-stage lung cancer.

“Usually if you have lung cancer it means it’s advanced and his was curable,” he says. “She was probably in pain from something else.”

He adds that the symptoms of lung cancer also start at later stages of the cancer. But he urges people to seek help if they experience:

  • A persistent cough
  • Blood when you cough

It is difficult to catch lung cancer at an early stage, which is why screening can be important.

“If you have a risk factor, a history of smoking, asbestos (exposure), you should get screened for lung cancer,” he says. “If you find it early, you can take it out with a small piece of lung and you can be cured.”

recovering from an operation

It took Moore five or six months to physically recover from his surgery. Although she’s returned to the gym – and a more active life – she still has to remember to take things easy.

“I’m always in a hurry to get things done. I have to slowly take my time,” she says. “I’m trying to breathe like I normally want to breathe so (to get back to that) took a bit of time.”

After undergoing surgery to remove part of her lung and two cancerous nodules, Saundra Moore returned to the gym and her more active life.
After undergoing surgery to remove part of her lung and two cancerous nodules, Saundra Moore returned to the gym and her more active life.Courtesy of Saundra Moore

Dealing with the feelings she experienced took longer.

“My emotional recovery for me, I’m still trying to recover,” she says. “Last night I cried because it hit me all of a sudden.”

Moore realized how important it was to take care of herself.

“I was so busy taking care of everyone that I wasn’t even taking care of myself,” she says. “Pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to what is going on in your own body.

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