Lung cancer patients fight stigma as more non-smokers are diagnosed

Statistics show nearly one-in-five people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked

Brodie Thomas 4 minute read November 1, 2021

Terry Morey of Cochrane has been living a relatively normal life, despite being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. A class of drugs known as TKIs keep his tumours in check. Submitted

Terry Morey was surprised to find himself out of breath one day in 2013 while going for a walk on his acreage near Cochrane.

The now-74-year-old had just gotten back from a trip to Europe and assumed he had picked up a bug along the way. He visited his doctor for antibiotics, but his doctor also scheduled an x-ray to get a better sense of what was happening.

When the x-ray results came back, Morey was advised to get to an emergency room right away because of fluid in his lungs. That emergency room visit led to a biopsy and a diagnosis of lung cancer. At the time, Morey was given six to 18 months to live.

Morey took two forms of chemotherapy over several years, but then his doctor offered him a chance to try a new class of drugs known as tyrosine kinase inhibitors, or TKIs.

“A biomarker was found on my tumour cells, and that biomarker led to the use of a pill I could take orally,” he explained.

The first drug he tried, Crizotinib, targeted proteins specific to his cancer cells, inhibiting growth and sometimes even shrinking tumours.

He has since moved on to another TKI drug called Alectinib, which works in the same way. He takes the medication daily, instead of undergoing more debilitating chemotherapy treatments.

The breakthrough of TKIs means Terry can treat his cancer more like a chronic disease. He said aside from minor medication side effects and shortness of breath, he and his wife Joyce have been able to keep living a relatively normal life for eight years since his diagnosis.

“Right now we would be in California if it wasn’t for COVID,” said Morey. “We’re living. We’re trying continue a way of life.”

The only time he said he feels anxious is waiting in the doctor’s office for results of his quarterly scans, which luckily have continued to show the cancer remains stable and under control.

The one thing I don’t do is wander around saying, ‘Poor me — I’m dying of lung cancer,’” said Morey. “That’s not me. I’m glad it’s not me.”

Unfortunately, Morey’s story remains the exception rather than the rule when it comes to lung cancer. It is Canada’s deadliest form of cancer according to data from the Canadian Cancer Society, killing an estimated 21,200 Canadians in 2020, and representing a quarter of all cancer deaths in the country.

Despite those numbers, lung cancer also receives only a small share of cancer research funding in Canada — about six per cent — according to Emi Bossio, who is a board member of Lung Cancer Canada and a lung cancer survivor.

She is certain part of that deficit of funding has to do with the stigma around smoking.


“For some reason there’s this stigma of smoking and lung cancer and we can’t seem to shake it,” said Bossio. “The problem is, it’s really impacting people’s lives because the research is so critical to finding these drugs that are absolutely transforming people’s lives.”

While the majority of lung cancer patients are current or former smokers, things like radon and exposure to pollutants can also cause the disease. Bossio said the number of non-smokers with lung cancer is growing. Nearly one-in-five Canadian lung cancer patients were never smokers. Both Bossio and Terry Morey fall in that non-smoking group.

Bossio said while attending a lung cancer conference last year, she and four other Albertans started discussing ways to raise awareness of the disease, and encourage people to advocate for screening if they suspect there’s a problem with their lungs.

“Each of us in that group was told by our doctors, you can’t have lung cancer because you’re not a smoker,” she said.

One of the things they’ve done is purchase a billboard on Alberta’s Highway 2. It reads, “If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.” It also directs people to Lung Cancer Canada’s website where they’ve posted stories of hope about people such as Terry Morey beating the odds with new medications.

Bossio said that hope is important for people going through cancer. She just hopes to see more money directed towards research of the disease.

“The statistics are not great — but there’s so much hope because so much has changed,” she said.

Twitter: @brodie_thomas