Survivors of Radon-Induced Lung Cancer Speak Out

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Elizabeth Hoffmann of Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a survivor of radon induced lung cancer. Although she has never smoked, her 15-year exposure to dangerous levels of radon in her home resulted in doctors having to remove the cancerous lower lobe of her left lung prior to her 38th birthday.

When I woke up choking with tubes in my throat, panic set in.

Elizabeth Hoffmann of Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a survivor of radon induced lung cancer. Although, she has never smoked, her 15-year exposure to dangerous levels of radon in her home resulted in doctors having to remove the cancerous lower lobe of her left lung prior to her 38th birthday.

More than a year ago, Liz announced the creation of a new website for Cancer Survivors Against Radon http://www.cansar.org. Its purpose is to put a face on radon by empowering sufferers of radon-induced lung cancer (and their families) with a unified voice and to prevent LC victims from remaining clueless.

Since few oncologists provide a potential explanation for the cause, most non-smokers diagnosed with lung cancer never make the association with radon exposure. Liz would remain clueless herself, if it had not been for the determination of her family to find out why. Her cousin mentioned radon as a possibility to her father, who tested Liz’s house for radon upon her return from the hospital. The results were over twice EPA’s Recommended Radon Action Level.

The CANSAR Registry enables non-smoking lung cancer patients and their families to register with the organization and order a free radon test kit for their home. Survivors and their families can choose to join others who are committed to warning the public about the danger of indoor radon. Approximately 50% of the people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked or are former smokers, including a 17% occurrence in never smokers.

“While it is obviously too late to preclude our cancer, our stories may convince others to prevent deadly radon exposure by testing and fixing,” says Liz. “We can also shape public policy by convincing lawmakers and government agencies to treat the radon issue and lung cancer with the seriousness it deserves. But it’s difficult to put together an advocacy group when 85% of the victims die within five years of being diagnosed. They’re just struggling to survive”.

Lucky for Liz, they caught her cancer early. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and EPA blame radon exposure for the deaths of 21,000 Americans annually. But, their deaths, like Liz’s cancer, could have been prevented. A simple radon test at the time she bought her home in 1988 would have alerted her and her husband to fix their house before moving in.

In April of this year Dennie Edwards, a real estate agent for Realty-One in Elyria, Ohio went to the doctor with a very bad cold. After the doctor performed a chest x-ray to check for pneumonia, he was shocked to find a 4.5-centimeter mass in his left lung. Like Liz, Dennie had never smoked. But, even though he had been a real estate agent for 31 years, he had never bothered to test his house for radon.

“To protect my liability, I always informed my clients that radon testing prior to purchase was an option, but truthfully, I really didn't care if they tested or not,” says Dennie. “Now I had to wonder whether my lung cancer had been caused by radon exposure.”

While the doctor scheduled his surgery, Dennie scheduled a radon test. The result was 10 pCi/l, (two and a half times the EPA's recommended Action Level). He had lived in the home for 12 years. He immediately called a contractor to have a mitigation system installed. Two days later he had surgery.

“I thought I was surely going to die,” says Dennie. “When I woke up choking with tubes in my throat, panic set in.” They had removed his entire left lung.

“I'm getting better. I can walk up to a mile,” he continues. “ But, I can no longer dance, lift things, or exert myself. My clients now get a very personal testimonial about the importance of testing for radon.”

Dr. Lane Mathis Price, Medical Director and Oncologist at the Decatur (AL) General Oncology Center has seen her share of lung cancer victims.

“People come into my office and say Doc Price I just don’t understand it. How can this happen to me? I don’t smoke. Nobody ever smokes around me. How can I have lung cancer?"

"Convincing the public that radon is dangerous is made more difficult because the nation’s leading housing authority, (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) refuses to take action to prevent radon exposure in our homes,” says Price. “ HUD requires a termite letter to qualify for a mortgage, yet to my knowledge a termite never killed anybody. Why are they not requiring a radon test?”

“Never underestimate the importance of prevention in all aspects of your life,” warns Dr. Michael Dick, Director of Internal Medicine at Decatur Adult Medicine. “If you’re a lung cancer victim aware of all the ways it is impacting you and your family -- you’d be kicking yourself if you knew something a simple as a radon detection device would have allowed you to prevent this from occurring.”

"There also needs to be a much greater effort to find a cure," explains Liz. "Even though lung cancer kills more Americans than breast, prostate and colorectal cancers combined, very little money is spent on lung cancer research."

In 2003, approximately $1,740 was spent on research per lung cancer death, compared with:$13,649 per breast cancer death, $10,560 per prostate cancer death and $4,581 per colorectal cancer death.

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