Outlet Full Name: NBC Bay Area
Author: Stephanie Chuang, Liza Meak, David Burgess
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Molly Golbon doesn’t take much for granted these days.
The 39-year old married working mom of two knows life can take unexpected turns. For her, it came with a pain in her throat, tiredness, and cough that wouldn’t go away.
“I went in for an MRI, and that’s when they found there was something on the MRI,” Golbon recalled. That something turned out to be lung cancer. “I think when they told me it was lung cancer, I thought it can’t be. It can’t be. It’s probably bronchitis or pneumonia, it’s not that.”
Unfortunately, it was.
Until her diagnosis, Golbon, like many people, thought only smokers got lung cancer.
“The stigma for lung cancer is that it’s a smoker’s cancer and it’s not. I’ve never smoked. No one in my family ever smoked,” Golbon said.
Over a three week period, after going through a series of tests and scans, Golbon learned her cancer had spread into her brain, left hip and right shoulder.
“It was just too much to handle,” Golbon said. “I think I had thoughts that my 4-1/2-year-old would not have any memory of me, and I just couldn’t bear that thought.”
Not Just a Smoker’s Disease
When it comes to lung cancer, the statistics are scary. It kills more people than colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined.
While the majority of people who get lung cancer have smoked in the past, many, like Golbon, are non-smokers.
“Our estimates were about 10 percent of men in the U.S. who have never smoked get lung cancer and about 20 percent of women,” said Golbon’s oncologist Dr. Heather Wakalee, a nationally renowned thoracic oncologist at Stanford University Medical Center.
“There’s a lot of work being done trying to figure out how lung cancer in never smokers differ from lung cancer in smokers,” Dr. Wakalee explained. “About a decade ago we were able to identify that there were gene mutations, changes in that particular gene that led to changes in the EGFR protein, and when that happened, it would develop lung cancer. It was the driving force behind lung cancer.”
Treating Lung Cancer without Chemotherapy or Radiation
Dr. Wakalee suspected Golbon had this type of gene mutation and tested her for it.
“I was EGFR positive,” Golbon said, which was was some of the best news she could have received. “If there was a cancer lottery, I feel like I had won it because I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy, I didn’t have to go through radiation, at least not yet.”
Here’s why. With this type of lung cancer, doctors usually start out treating patients with oral medications. Since December, Golbon has been taking an oral drug called Tarceva, and the results have been remarkable.
“My tumor was down 50 percent in February,” she said. Not only that, the cancer that metastasized to Golbon’s hip, shoulder, and brain is now almost undectable.
This quick response to the medication isn’t surprising to Dr. Wakalee.
“These drugs tend to work really quickly, they work within a week or twoo and people generally start to feel better, but they don’t work forever,” Dr. Wakalee said.
Every patient is different. Some patients stay on the medication for years, but for other people stop seeing benefits sooner.
“I can’t tell someone how long they have, but I can tell them this is their step one,” Dr. Wakalee said.
Golbon understands this, but for now, she’s feeling healthier and is in a lot less pain.
“I’m breathing really well. I’m back to work. I’m back to yoga. I’m back to working out and to think it was one little pill.”
Lung Cancer Research
Part of the reason Golbon decided to share her story was to get more funding for lung cancer research. At any given time, there’s anywhwere from 15 to 20 lung cancer clinical trials going on at Stanford.
“We couldn’t have all these new drugs without doing the clinical trials,” Dr. Wakalee said. “We all need to be working together to figure out how do we move forward to help everyone with the disease.”