Janice Simmons, a 56-year-old Henrico County resident who manages and renovates rental properties, likes to tell people that John Deere saved her life last December.
It was a strangely mild day, and because Simmons always has a project going — painting, fixing or building something — she headed out to her yard in the Far West End to tinker with repairing her riding lawn mower. "It was one of those warm Indian summer days that we have, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is a good day to get it started.' "
Simmons called a regional John Deere dealer, and a staffer told her that because the mower had not been used in so long, she should try siphoning out the gas before a repairman made a visit. But her experiment did not go as planned: "Obviously I sucked way too hard — and I inhaled gobs of gas."
Reeking of gasoline, she called 911 and a paramedic team responded. "They told me to eat lots of bread, things that would absorb it," she says. But her mother urged her to get a more thorough checkup. A few hours later, after an X-ray and a CAT scan, Simmons learned that she had lung cancer. A tumor had been growing in her left lung, undetected until the gas-siphoning incident.
"It was surreal," she says. "I just felt great. I was having no symptoms."
In some ways, the stage 3 cancer was not a surprise. Simmons is part of the 88 percent of lung cancer patients who develop the disease from smoking. She began smoking at age 15 and despite attempts to quit, she continued to smoke for 40 years.
Dr. Johnny Wong, a pulmonologist at Pulmonary Associates of Richmond, says that in many lung cancer cases, tumors develop unnoticed. "The lung is very squishy, like a sponge — you can have something grow in soft lung tissue, and no one will ever know it until it starts irritating you."
Because of the hard-to-detect nature of cancer in the lung, 75 percent to 80 percent of the people affected by it do not survive, says Dr. Sherman Baker Jr. of Virginia Commonwealth University's Massey Cancer Center.
Lung cancer kills more people than any other cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research by the CDC also shows that American women carry some of the highest rates of lung cancer death in the world.
Among patients who are diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, more than 70 percent respond to chemotherapy and radiation, Baker says. Stage 3 patients often live three years or more, he adds, but only about 5 percent to 10 percent are cured. Among patients who are in stage 4, the most severe form, fewer than 2 percent go into remission, he says.
Still, medical advancements provide hope, Baker says. These advancements include an oral medication that effectively treats nonsmoking patients who have a genetic mutation. Up to 65 percent of these patients respond positively to the treatment. Baker adds that clinical trials are under way at Massey to develop better lung cancer therapies for patients who have genetic mutations.
Another development is the use of endobronchial ultrasound to discover what stage of lung cancer the patient has, Wong says. The test allows medical professionals to look through the wall of a patient's bronchial tubes and see to what extent the cancer has spread; this determines whether patients will benefit from surgery. Wong says the technique is effective in reducing the number of patients who undergo surgery needlessly.
When Simmons learned of her cancer, it had already spread to her lymph nodes. In January, an attempt by surgeons to remove the tumor showed that it was too close to her aorta. She immediately began 36 continuous days of radiation and two rounds of chemotherapy. Other than tiredness, she says, she never suffered side effects from the treatments.
On July 1, Simmons found out that her body had responded to treatments; her cancer was in remission. "I was elated.
I cried," she says excitedly. She now visits Henrico Doctors' Hospital every three months for a PET scan, which produces 3-D images, to check for any recurrence.
As for the gas-siphoning incident, Simmons says, "I actually owe John Deere a huge debt of gratitude for suggesting that I do that, because otherwise I would not have had any reason to go to the doctor."