As a busy mother of two sons, Ivy Elkins shrugged off her sore neck and elbow pain for months. She thought it was probably from the extra hours spent planning a bar mitzvah for her oldest son. After all, a middle-aged woman who never smoked doesn’t fit the typical profile of a lung cancer patient.
“To say that I was shocked and in disbelief is an understatement,” Ivy recalls. “I didn’t have a cough. I didn’t have any trouble breathing. I didn’t have any of the symptoms that I would associate with lung cancer. I didn’t know that someone like me could get lung cancer.”
It’s a common misconception that lung cancer is a burden borne by smokers alone. While smoking remains the major risk factor for lung cancer, never-smokers may also develop the disease. In women, up to 53% of lung cancers may not be caused by direct smoking. In these patients, the underlying cause of lung cancer is often a genetic mutation, a permanent alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene. To identify mutations, patients undergo “biomarker testing” at the time of diagnosis. Doctors and patients then use the test results to evaluate treatment options.
After Ivy was diagnosed with late stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the most common form of lung cancer, she underwent biomarker testing. She learned that she has a specific type of mutation in the EGFR gene. EGFRs are structures that exist on cell surfaces. When mutated, these structures can cause cells to multiply at a rate that is out of control, driving tumor growth.
Ivy was more optimistic about her treatment when she learned about her mutation status. “I knew that it likely meant that I could be a candidate for treatment with a targeted therapy, as opposed to having traditional chemotherapy.” After her healthcare team learned more about her specific type of EGFR mutation and discussed treatment options, she started taking a targeted therapy.
Now, because she had the biomarker testing, Ivy urges fellow patients to take this advice: “It’s vitally important if you’re diagnosed with lung cancer to have biomarker testing done, to help determine the best treatment option for your cancer.”