Jessica Steinberg trained for marathons, ate healthily and never smoked a cigarette. But at 39 years old, Steinberg received a diagnosis that changed her life: she had lung cancer that eventually developed into a Stage 4 metastatic disease.
It was April 2011 and the same week she signed divorce papers. The newly single mom of two young boys couldn’t understand why she’d have lung cancer.
“I was totally blown away. I had never smoked, I had no known risk factors and no family history. I couldn’t believe it … it happened so fast and my kids were so little, all I could focus on was that I had to fight this for them and that became my driving force,” Steinberg told Global News.
Now, after fighting off the disease, Steinberg learned that her health profile is the new face of lung cancer.
“All it takes to get lung cancer is lungs. Nobody is immune to it and it’s time to end the stigma around this cancer. It’s happening to women like me,” she said.
The new face of lung cancer
Lung cancer kills more women than any other cancer.
Over the past 30 years, lung cancer has increased in young women while it’s decreased in men between 20 and 44 years old, according to Lung Cancer Canada.
“We know that for lung cancer, it kills 50 to 60 Canadians a day – a large proportion is females. Lung cancer in men peaked in the 80s but in females we’ve seen a slight increase in the last couple of years,” Dr. Parneet Cheema told Global News.
She’s a medical oncologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Her hope is to end the stigma surrounding lung cancer – Canadians often think it’s a disease that’s tied to smoking, but she said this isn’t necessarily the case.
“It’s not exclusive to older, smoking patients. I have a lot of patients similar to Jessica who are non-smokers,” she said.
Women are 1.5 times more likely than men to develop lung cancer.
Women who have never smoked are also more likely to develop lung cancer than men who have never smoked.
Cheema said the average age of a lung cancer patient is 70, but in Ontario, 15 per cent are under 60 years old and 20 per cent of women diagnosed haven’t smoked.
A mom’s brave fight for her life hits a turning point
When she was first diagnosed, doctors thought she had a Stage 1 cancer that was isolated in a tumour.
She said they promised they’d take out a piece of her lung and she’d recover.
“On the table, they discovered the cancer was much more extensive than they thought. It was all over my lungs and all of my lymph nodes were impacted,” she said.
Steinberg needed chemotherapy and whole-brain radiation. She lost her hair twice and the therapies destroyed her hair follicles. She keeps her hair closely shaved and wears wigs now.
But the turning point was genetic testing. This is how doctors learned she had ALK-positive non-small cell lung cancer. It’s typically an aggressive and usually terminal cancer that spreads into the brain.
Knowing that certain biomarkers were driving her cancer helped them fight it with targeted therapies.
“I started with things they’d been using for the past 20 years, and it failed and I kept getting worse and worse. The biomarker was a breakthrough moment,” she said.
Steinberg will always live with Stage 4 cancer, but she currently has no “measureable disease.”
A message to Canadians
Throughout her ordeal, Steinberg put on a brave face for her two boys – Nate and Pete. They were in Grade 3 and kindergarten when she was diagnosed.
“My boys were going to experience cancer and what to do in times of adversity through me. It became my opportunity to show them what happens when you face hardships,” she said.
“I hope I modelled what dedication and perseverance and hope looks like,” she told Global News.
She said she wishes she paid attention to the warning signs that something was wrong.
When she was training for a marathon, for example, she’d gasp on hills she used to run smoothly. She couldn’t sleep on the left side of her body without feeling like she couldn’t breathe. She would have “crazy” coughing spurts.
“You look back and think, ‘I could’ve made a stop to the doctor’ but you dismiss so much of it,” she said.
She’s urging fellow Canadians to look after their – and their loved ones’ – well-being.
She also urges Canadians to shed the stigma around lung cancer. Steinberg was healthy, active and fit but she crossed paths with the disease.
“It happens to young people and it happens to never smokers and I feel like that’s important for everyone to know. It’s not just smoking grandmas and grandpas,” she said.