Anita had a cough that even antibiotics couldn’t kill. As time went on, she began experiencing shortness of breath during daily activities.
“I got up to go to work one morning and while I was getting dressed I could hardly breathe,” says Anita Valenzuela, 51.
Anita had a CT scan scheduled just a few days later, but concerned by the severity of the symptoms, her daughter insisted she visit an urgent care center. During her visit, she was given a chest x-ray. There it was determined that on top of her cough, Anita’s heart rate and oxygen level was low.
She was taken to Long Beach Medical Center, where the care team quickly began giving Anita oxygen while running a battery of tests. Still struggling to breathe, the team considered Tuberculosis, but when the test results were negative, it was time to bring in a team of specialists.
“My oxygen levels were worsening and my condition was becoming critical,” says Anita. “A pulmonologist came to see me and I was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit.”
The pulmonologist ordered a bronchoscopy and CT scan to look inside Anita’s lungs. The next step was clear – call Nilesh Vora, M.D., oncologist at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Medical Center.
“Anita wasn't getting better and her CT scan was dramatic – with both lungs afflicted by hundreds of nodules,” says Dr. Vora.
A lung nodule is a small round or oval-shaped growth in the lung. There are two types: malignant (cancerous) and benign (non-cancerous).
He needed a closer look to determine if the nodules were cancerous. Dr. Vora brought in his colleague Amir Abolhoda, M.D., thoracic surgical oncologist, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, Long Beach Medical Center, to help confirm a diagnosis.
Dr. Abolhoda performed an open lung biopsy and wedge resection. An open lung biopsy is surgery to remove a small piece of tissue from the lung. The sample is then examined for cancer or other diseases. A wedge resection is a form of treatment that involves removing the cancerous cells in the lung, and removing a margin of surrounding healthy tissue.
Between the procedures and CT scan, Dr. Vora confirmed that Anita had stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, specifically adenocarcinoma, which is a type of cancer that forms in mucus-secreting glands throughout the body.
Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for 80 percent of lung cancers, and adenocarcinoma is the most common type. It also is the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers, like Anita, who has maintained a smoke-free life.
“Anita had to be put on a ventilator after surgery to allow her to breathe, and her condition was rapidly worsening from a respiratory point of view,” says Dr. Vora.
Lung cancer is often found late and in an advanced stage making it harder than other cancers to treat. As a result, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women in the U.S.
Knowing this, Dr. Vora knew he needed a targeted treatment approach if Anita was going to have a positive outcome.
Suspecting Anita had a gene mutation that would respond to specific drugs, Dr. Vora started her on an oral drug called Tarceva®. Tests later confirmed that Anita had the exon19 epidermal growth factor receptor gene mutation.
Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) is a protein on the surface of cells. It normally helps the cells grow and divide. Some non-small lung cancer cells have too much EGFR, which makes them grow faster. Drugs called EGFR inhibitors can block the signal from EGFR that tells the cells to grow. Tarceva® is one of these drugs.
“We started administering the drug through her feeding tube while she was on the ventilator,” says Dr. Vora. “It had almost an immediate impact and she was able to come off the ventilator a week later. The day Anita left the hospital was nothing short of a miracle.”
After hospitalization in February 2016, Anita was required to get chemotherapy every three weeks to supplement the targeted therapy.
Just five months later, a PET scan confirmed that Anita had a clean bill of health.
Today, she’s symptom free and lives life to the fullest, making sure to treasure each moment with her family.