When it comes to cancer, certain facts are well known. Using tobacco products increase the risk of getting cancer. When it comes to lung cancer, about 80 percent of all cases are linked to smoking. And lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer, taking the lives of 1.6 million Americans every year. That’s more than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.

But what might surprise you is that as many as 24,000 Americans, who never smoked a cigarette or used any other form of tobacco, die from lung cancer every year. That number alone would rank it among the top 10 fatal cancers in the U.S.

Changing the face of lung cancer patients

“I want to help change the face of lung cancer,” said Michelle Gydesen, who is a HealthPartners Member Services Benefit-Products Supervisor. She is also a two-time a lung cancer survivor.

“I had a pneumonia, or so they thought,” Michelle said. “For whatever reason, my doctor at the time ordered a chest X-ray. He later said, ‘I don’t know why I ordered a chest X-ray in a non-smoking, 30-year-old woman, but I am thankful I did.’”

In October 1999, doctors removed the right lower lobe of Michelle’s lung. With no connection to tobacco use, doctors kept a close eye on her progress. Scans and X-rays were cancer free for the next 14 years.

Another cancer diagnosis

It was at that point, about three years ago, that simple symptoms sparked a cautious response.

“I had a cold and a cough, just like everyone did around me at work,” Michelle recalled. “My doctor ordered a CT scan because of my history. He called me up and he said what they found.”

Michelle was diagnosed with lung cancer for the second time. In November 2013, doctors removed her the right middle lobe of her lung.

Recovery included chemotherapy. Her most recent checkup shows she is cancer free. But she knows the pain a cancer diagnosis can cause. So does her husband and her two children.

Helping raise awareness

“My son sees the cancer-awareness events and one day, he asked me, ‘How come nobody ever talks about your cancer, mom?’”

In her role at HealthPartners, Michelle and her team work to make sure that members know their benefits. Providing great care to our members is part of our mission. She and her team help everyone, but Michelle knows first-hand that when it comes to lung cancer, there is a stigma.

“I have been asked by people, if I smoked. If I had breast cancer, would someone ask that same question? That really hurts. Nobody deserves to be asked, ‘What did you do to get this?’ Of course, I have compassion for everyone who gets a cancer diagnosis, but raising awareness about all types of cancers is important.”

Michelle’s oncologist, Balkrishna Jahagirdar, MBBS, credits her positive attitude for helping her get through the challenging times. Her cases involve genetic mutations, which is different than most lung cancer cases linked to tobacco use. But regardless of the cause, like all cancers, there are common symptoms and treatment options.

Dr. Jahagirdar encourages patients to beware of symptoms like headaches, a cough, shortness of breath, weight loss, and coughing up blood. These symptoms don’t mean that a person has cancer, but he encourages patients to see a doctor just in case.

“A lot of people don’t seek medical attention, but especially when diagnosed at an early stage, these can be treatable and curable cancers. Don’t be afraid of seeing the doctor. That worry causes people to brush off symptoms and waiting can make the situation more dangerous.”

For Michelle, sharing her story is a way to try and help other families like hers. Anyone interested in joining her goal to increase funding for research and awareness, check out the Breath of Hope Lung Foundation and mark your calendar for next summer’s 11th annual Twin Cities Lung Run/Walk next summer.

If you're concerned that you might have lung cancer, talk with your primary care doctor about whether lung cancer screening is right for you.