Be Well, Marsha: 11/03/15

A tough cell

By Marsha Bonhart

“You have lung cancer.”

It’s one of the most dreaded phrases in a diagnosis.

Five years ago, Kathleen Fennig of Beavercreek got that message. “A non-smoking relative was diagnosed with lung cancer and because I had been a smoker, I wanted to be screened,” she said. That was one of the most important decisions of her life. A CT scan of her chest showed two small nodules on her right lung that doctors said at the time were too tiny to biopsy (removing tissue, cells or fluid from a living body for close examination) and they wanted to wait six months to see if they would grow. The theory is, if the nodules didn’t grow within that time period, they were probably not cancerous. Growth could signal cancer and they would then be large enough to test.

“I didn’t want to wait that long,” said the semi-retired registered nurse. It was her medical background that warned waiting six months could be too late. Three months later, after aggressively requesting another CT scan, the screening showed one of the nodules had grown large enough to biopsy. What was even worse for her, she recalls, was the anxiety she felt because of the three-week interval between the CT screen and the biopsy. As she feared, the resulting diagnosis was small cell adenocarcinoma and at the point, stage 1-A (early) lung cancer.

Lung cancer starts when abnormal cells grow out of control anywhere in the lung. They can invade nearby tissues and form tumors, affecting any part of the respiratory system. The disease is divided into small cell lung cancers, like Fennig’s, and non-small cell lung cancers. Small cell lung cancers usually grow more quickly and are more likely to spread than non-small cell lung cancer. Smoking isn’t the only cause; it can develop in people who have had exposure to second hand smoke, arsenic, excessive radiation, asbestos, radioactive dust or radon (a naturally occurring gas that can get trapped in houses and buildings). All can increase your chances of a lung cancer diagnosis.

In 2013, the latest lung cancer data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 228,000 people in the United States were estimated as new lung cancer cases. Awareness and education about the dangers of smoking have decreased the numbers but the monitoring health agency tells us lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths and is the second most common cancer among men and women.

Fennig had stopped smoking ten years before her diagnosis and didn’t belong in the teen smoker category.

“I started smoking my last year of college, I don’t know why. I was old enough to know better, it was just stupid,” she said.

Surgery removed the upper part of her right lobe and a wedge of the same lung’s middle lobe. That operation cut out the second smaller lobe that had not gotten bigger, but doctors wanted to surgically rid her body of any possible cancer spots.

Lung cancer is insidious and generally, by the time symptoms appear, the disease has begun to spread.

Fennig says because her cancer was caught early (stage 1-A), she is “one of the lucky ones.” So, for the last few years since her recovery, as a grass roots ambassador, she has been on a crusade to raise awareness about the disease through the national Free to Breathe campaign. The local movement of the non-profit lung cancer research and advocacy organization recently held its eighth annual 5K Walk/Run at Fifth Third Field in downtown Dayton. That’s the group that connected me with Fennig several years ago when I began and have continued as emcee of the Dayton Free to Breathe fundraiser. I was excited to be a part of it even though unfortunately, the disease has touched me personally. As a soldier in the U.S. Army, my father began smoking at age 20 in the embattled trenches of England, Germany and France during World War II. He finally stopped when he was diagnosed at age 75 with lung cancer. He died from it five years later.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, but this year, citing weather concerns, the Free to Breathe decision makers are now rallying in October. Hundreds gathered outside the baseball field in Dayton, walking the 3.1 miles, raising more than $28,000 this year. That amount is enough to fund two months of life saving research to find better treatments to stop growth of the disease. The national arm of the organization is dedicated to doubling the lung cancer survival rate by the 2022 and planners say since 2006, more than $12 million have been raised. That money can be used for research and education.

Kathleen Fennig says smokers, including former smokers, especially those between the ages of 55 to 80 and anyone exposed to radon should be CT screened to check for lung cancer. She knows how that test and her intuition saved her life. Right now, she is cancer free.

Be well,


For more information, please visit or, call 1-800-QUITNOW (784-8669), or text QUIT to 47848.

Marsha Bonhart is an assistant vice president of public relations and programs at Wilberforce University, the nation’s first private, historically black college. Reach her at

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