Tamika Sutherland knew something was wrong when the usual five-minute walk from work to her Meadowvale home took over 45 minutes one day. It was back in the summer of 2011 and Sutherland, who was 26 at the time, didn’t know what to make of the sudden lethargy. After going to see a doctor and undergoing a battery of tests, the news was shocking: she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“When the doctor told me, it didn’t even really register that I had cancer at first,” she said.
Sutherland’s family was told she only had three months to live. More than two years later, the John Cabot Catholic Secondary School graduate is still fighting the disease. She’s had four different forms of intravenous chemotherapy and has taken part in three clinical trials of new forms of medicine.
Although a smoker for about five years, Sutherland was told that genetic mutation — not smoking — was the cause of her cancer. While many people would assume smoking is the cause of lung cancer, that isn’t always the case. Doctors say it’s showing up more frequently in people who don’t smoke.
According to Lung Cancer Canada, as many as 15 percent of lung cancer patients are life-long non-smokers and 50 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer have quit the habit before being diagnosed. While many people are familiar with the link between genetics and breast cancer, only 3 per cent of Canadians has heard of epidermal growth factor receptor mutation, which is one of the most common genetic mutations found in 20 percent of all lung cancer tumours.
“There’s a stigma that needs to be changed about lung cancer,” said Dr. Danny Robson, a Toronto medical oncologist. “If you have lung cancer, it’s not (always) because you were a smoker but because you’ve had some bad luck.”
Robson said recent advances had allowed doctors to do better testing to determine what form of cancer the patient has. Armed with that information, doctors can prescribe treatment that will be more effective for that type of cancer. There’s also new types of medicine, such as Giotrif, that works specifically on genetic mutation cancers. It’s proving to be a more effective treatment and, according to Robson, it’s letting people live longer without progression of the disease.
Robson noted that lung cancer causes more deaths than colon, prostate and breast cancer combined but the public isn’t necessarily aware of that. With November being Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Robson is hoping it will help increase the public’s understanding and knowledge of the disease.
Meanwhile, Sutherland hasn’t lost hope and continues to try new forms of treatment. A triplet, she counts on the support of her siblings (Tiera and Nathaniel and her younger brother Nicholaus), family and friends. A strong belief in God is also a source of inspiration.
“I know I can become better, I’ve seen a lot of success stories,” said Sutherland. “I know I can beat this. It’s just a matter of time.”