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Lung Cancer Survivor

Cecilia Izzo

Living with stage IV lung cancer is practically unheard of. That’s why, after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004 at age 50, Cecilia Izzo moved from Boston to Seattle. Cecilia says, “I love Seattle and thought if I was going to die, I wanted to be here.” But, with the help of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, she is still alive…and kicking!

Cecilia has always been active and loves the outdoors. “There is nothing more beautiful than just being outside—camping and hiking.”

In August 2003, Cecilia and her family flew to the Pacific Northwest to visit friends and do some hiking to celebrate her 50th birthday. Toward the end of the trip, Cecilia became sick with a high fever and stayed in bed for a couple of days. “I have a Master’s degree in exercise physiology, so fitness has always been a part of my life. It was very unusual for me to be laid up,” she says.

Diagnosis

Back home in Boston, she went to the doctor where she had a chest X-ray and was treated for pneumonia. After suffering more unexplained symptoms, including shoulder discomfort and fluttering in her chest, in February 2004 Cecilia was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

“I was so healthy. I never had bronchitis, asthma, or allergies. I always had routine checkups—mammograms, colonoscopies, you name it. I never thought about lung cancer. Most of my family smokes, but other than a couple of cigarettes when I was young, I never smoked; so lung cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.”

Treatment

That April she had her right lung removed and underwent months of chemotherapy with paclitaxel (Taxol) and carboplatin. In August, just two weeks after finishing chemotherapy, Cecilia and her family moved from Boston to Seattle. Cecilia chose Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to continue her care because of the renowned expertise in treating lung cancer. Since then, she has been treated by Renato G. Martins, MD, MPH, SCCA medical oncologist. By coincidence, Dr. Martins and her surgeon in Boston had trained together at Harvard Medical School, something that made Cecilia confident about her decision to seek treatment at SCCA.

Repercussions and Recurrence

Cecilia’s heart and left lung started moving into the space where her right lung had been, causing her airway to collapse in late October 2006. Douglas Wood, MD, a thoracic surgeon at UW Medical Center, performed the surgery to correct her collapsed airway. Dr. Wood, like Dr. Martins, knew her surgeon in Boston; they had also trained at Harvard together.

In the meantime, they had been watching a nodule, which looked like a blood vessel, in her left lung. Then in early 2007, after a follow-up exam and CT scan (computed tomography), Cecilia received news that the nodule in her left lung was malignant and had surgery to remove it.

Dr. Martins treated Cecilia with erlotinib (Tarceva) for a couple of years. In 2009, when Dr. Martins gave Cecilia the choice to continue or stop the medication, she chose to stop and wait and see what happens. She goes in every six months for checkups to monitor her cancer.

“After all these years, we have a great relationship,” Cecilia says of Dr. Martins. “He is very warm. And when I had my recurrence I really felt how much he cared.”

Lung Cancer Advocate/Activist

When she first came to Seattle, Cecilia couldn’t find any support groups for lung cancer patients, so she started one herself with the help of Cancer Lifeline. Since then, more support groups for lung cancer patients have started up, including one with a cancer call-in line for people who aren’t able to attend in person.

“A lot of people blame themselves because they smoked,” Cecilia says. “We all make mistakes in our lives. When somebody hears you have lung cancer, the first and most common question is ‘did you smoke?’ When you meet someone with cervical cancer, you don’t ask them if they had a sexually transmitted disease.”

In 2006, Cecilia helped gather signatures and deliver them to Olympia to get the initiative to limit smoking in public places in Washington State on the ballot. Voters passed the legislation by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, Cecilia has been actively advocating on the state and national level for lung cancer awareness. She is chair of the Washington State chapter of the Lung Cancer Alliance, where she is responsible for forging relationships with hospitals and medical professionals, fundraising, and public outreach. She organized and coordinated the Shine a Light on Lung Cancer vigils in Washington and worked to garner support for the bi-partisan Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act, which authorized the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs to develop a comprehensive plan of action to coordinate prevention, early detection, and treatment research with the goal of reducing the mortality rate of lung cancer by 50 percent by 2020.

Screening and Early Detection

“Some people are in denial about lung cancer,” Cecilia says. But she also thinks some ignore symptoms they don’t recognize as suspicious. “You need to really listen to your body. Because the symptoms I had were so obscure, we couldn’t figure out what was going on.”

While screening doesn’t prevent cancer, it detects it, presumably early. And detecting cancer early can mean the difference between life and death. SCCA has been at the forefront of early detection. In 2008, SCCA’s  Lung Cancer Early Detection & Prevention Clinic opened for people concerned about their lung health. In 2011, the Low-Dose CT Lung Cancer Screening Program began.

Cecilia, who participated in interviews for both the Early Detection & Prevention Clinic and the Low-Dose CT Lung Screening program, passionately believes that spiral CT-screening, currently recommended only for those at high-risk, should someday include an even wider population. “We get mammograms starting at age 40, we get colonoscopies at age 50, but nobody looks at our lungs. If you have a baseline, then you can see changes later on. With spiral CT scans, not only will you see the lungs, but also the breast, heart, and everything else. It’s a win-win situation.”

Life After Lung Cancer

Despite having three major surgeries and her lung removed, Cecilia, a nurse at Seattle Children's, still enjoys an active lifestyle. In addition to regularly walking and biking, Cecilia has walked in several half-marathons, hiked in the Costa Rican jungle, snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, camped on Mt. Rainier, and put floors in huts in Honduras on international service trips.

“Some of the activities have been very challenging, probably because I don’t recognize my own limits,” says Cecilia. “I didn’t know it was going to be as bad as it is—having only one lung. For example, I could hardly breathe at the high elevation on Mt. Rainier.

“I refer people to SCCA all the time, even if it’s just for a second opinion. The doctors at SCCA are just a phone call away. I’m not going to say having cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me, but it definitely makes you look at life differently.”

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