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Healthbeat: Lung cancer stigma and the future of treatment

WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — More than 228,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed this year with lung cancer.

For years, many lung cancer patients have also had to deal with the stigma surrounding the disease which has often been linked to smoking.

Now, a cancer doctor and a lung cancer survivor are raising awareness about the danger of that stigma.

A diagnosis of lung cancer is stunning even when you have never smoked. That was the plight of non-smoker Montessa Lee who believes stigma linking smoking to lung cancer delayed her diagnosis and treatment in 2006.

“I was 28 years old so I was young. I was actually misdiagnosed twice before they finally even gave me an x-ray and found a tumor the size of a cantaloupe," Montessa Lee a lung cancer survivor and patient advocate told Eyewitness News.

“We need to recognize that many of our patients have never smoked and many patients who get diagnosed today, more than half of them have quit smoking, and regardless all of our patients deserve our empathy and compassion," Oncologist Balazs Halmos, MD said.

Dr. Halmos and Lee are working to battle stigma surrounding lung cancer. Roughly 85 percent of all cases are non-small cell lung cancer. When it comes to the other kind, Dr. Halmos says small cell lung cancer is a big problem.

“It is a very aggressive type of lung cancer that spreads easily and usually presents in advanced what is called extensive stage of disease," Halmos said.

Small cell lung cancer is what afflicted Lee but she says she was determined to get to the bottom of her health struggles some 15 years ago before it was too late.

“Be your own self-advocate even during this pandemic. Don’t be afraid to go into visit your doctor and lend your own voice if you have to," Lee said.

Lee and Dr. Halmos also credit improvement in treatment options that go beyond surgery and chemotherapy if the lung cancer is caught in time.

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