November 21, 2023

Surviving lung cancer as a nonsmoker

As a lifelong nonsmoker, Mariann Stephens was shocked to learn she had lung cancer. But she’s back to her active life after receiving care from Kaiser Permanente.

Stephens and her family enjoy spending time together hiking outdoors.

When Mariann Stephens learned she had lung cancer, she couldn’t believe it.

“I’ve never smoked in my entire life,” said the first grade teacher and mother of 2 from Pleasanton, California. “This was a total curveball.”

Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. And nearly 9 out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking cigarettes, according to the CDC.

But many people don’t realize that 1 in every 5 people who die from lung cancer are nonsmokers and have never used tobacco.

Saved by early detection

Stephens’ lung cancer story began on Valentine’s Day in 2013 when she was diagnosed with severe pneumonia. She spent a week in the hospital and was left with substantial scarring on both lungs. Her doctors recommended annual screenings to monitor the impact of the scarring.

After years of surveillance, a CT scan showed that a small nodule on her right lung had changed and grown.

“It turns out the pneumonia was both a curse and a blessing,” said Stephens. “If it weren’t for my pneumonia, I wouldn’t have been going in for annual scans, and the nodule could still be growing inside me. I feel like I dodged a huge bullet.”

Combining diagnosis and treatment

Stephens’s doctor referred her to Jeffrey Velotta, MD, a thoracic surgeon at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. Dr. Velotta recommended surgery to take a small tissue sample and test it for cancer immediately. The results came while Stephens was still on the operating table.

“It’s diagnosis and treatment at the same time,” Dr. Velotta explained. “Nodules like this are often hard to diagnose because they’re so small. Our lung cancer program has a system in place where I can send a sample downstairs to a specialist in lung pathology and get a 99% accurate diagnosis in less than 30 minutes.”

The test showed that the nodule was cancerous. Dr. Velotta removed the upper right lobe of Stephens’ lung and affected lymph nodes. He used video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery, or VATS. This minimally invasive technique allows for much smaller incisions in the chest wall. The result is fewer complications and less pain.

“I’m so thankful he was able to do everything in one shot,” said Stephens. “It saved me unnecessary steps and extra procedures. They were able to remove all the cancer, so I didn’t need chemo or radiation.”

Lung cancer survivor: “I owe him my whole life”

Stephens is now a lung cancer survivor. She’s back at school teaching her students. And she loves spending time in the mountains with her family, taking walks and enjoying the scenery.

“Dr. Velotta is my hero. I owe him my whole life,” she said.

Learn more about cancer care at Kaiser Permanente.