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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Dr. Mehraj u Din Lone, Ph.d., left, and Gurkan Mallaoglu, MSc and fourth-year Ph.D. student at the University of Utah talk about procedures for correctly displaying cancer cell slides in the research lab of the Huntsman Cancer Institute on the University of Utah in Salt Lake on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Susan Lee never smoked a day in her life, she said, and spent her free time running, hiking with her daughter or participating in bike rides.

But those healthy habits didn't stop cancer from spreading to both her lungs and into her bone marrow.

Lee's first clue about the cancer came as a yearlong dry cough and persistent hip pain. The Cottonwood Heights resident said she didn't think the symptoms were a problem until they didn't go away.

A friend suggested she receive a CT scan, and "boy, was that CT scan exciting," Lee remembered.

She was diagnosed in 2014 with lung cancer that had moved from her lungs, down her spine and to her hip — "which was a little too overwhelming for me," Lee said, "to find out that this disease I had been treating as a chronic overuse problem was now a metastatic lung cancer disease."

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and Lee shared her story during a news conference last week at the Huntsman Cancer Institute to remind Utahns that nonsmokers are also at risk for lung cancer.

"This is prevalent across our country," Lee said. "I want to tell people that a lot of (lung cancer patients) look just like me."

Dr. Wallace Akerley, a medical oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, said too many people don't realize that lung cancer happens to both smokers and nonsmokers.

"Everyone assumes that lung cancer is all about cigarette smoking, but that’s just not the case," Ackerley said. "It doesn’t quite get the appropriate attention that it should."

Smoking causes almost 90 percent of cancer deaths, according to the Utah Department of Health.

But even though Utah has the lowest percentage of smokers in the nation, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer death in the state.

Lung cancer can be triggered by exposure to other harmful gases such as radon and air pollution, Akerley explained, and some people inherit lung cancer through their genes.

"This is something that people aren’t aware of," he said. "We are now moving toward getting a gene panel to see if we can understand what gene is damaged that let the cancer become the cancer."

Huntsman Cancer Institute investigator Trudy Oliver and her team of researchers study the molecular features of lung cancer to discover how to improve patient treatments.

The researchers use Utah's extensive genealogy records to study the epidemiology of lung cancer patients. The team also alters DNA in mice to develop better treatment plans for genes mutated by cancer.

"Lung cancer is more than just one disease," Oliver said, explaining how she researches many lung cancer subtypes to adapt treatment to specific tumors.

"If we can track that change and understand when that change happens, we can respond appropriately," she added.

In Lee's case, she was given the choice to start chemotherapy immediately or wait to receive a molecular analysis of the tumor.

If the tumor were a certain mutation of cancer, she could qualify for other treatments, such as an oral pill.

Lee decided to wait for an analysis of the tumor. When doctors told her the cancer was a treatable mutation, Lee started taking a pill as a cancer treatment.

"Within 24 hours, I can say I started feeling better. I could tell that quickly that it was working," she said.

Gone are the days when cancer is only treated with chemotherapy, Akerley said. Now he treats lung cancer patients with gene-specific therapy, thanks to the work Oliver completes in her lab.

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If someone is worried a persistent symptom may be lung cancer, Akerley recommended getting the symptom checked.

"There is a reason for everything," he said. "Just the assumption that everything gets better isn’t enough."

At the Huntsman Cancer Institute, Oliver said her daily interactions with clinicians and patients lead to some of her most impactful work.

"We run into cancer patients in the elevators and in the hallways all the time," she said. "I think it’s a constant reminder of the value and importance and urgency in what we do."