David Sturges said he was “abundantly lucky” his lung cancer was detected early.
The New Ulm lawyer underwent a lobectomy to remove a tumor on the lower right lobe of his lung in 2002. By the time the cancer returned in 2016, video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery, or VATS, had advanced enough to offer a less invasive option.
In between, he co-founded the Lung Cancer Foundation of America to support lung cancer research so future patients won’t have to rely as much on luck to survive.
“I have been profoundly lucky, but as I tell people, luck should not be the catalyst in determining why someone survives lung cancer or not.”
His leadership within the foundation — he now serves as treasurer — led Parade magazine to feature his story in its Dec. 15 edition. Foundation President and co-founder Kim Norris said Sturges’ story in a national publication helps bring attention to a sometimes overlooked disease.
“It helps hugely,” she said. “When we started LCFA, yes our major mission is research, but unfortunately, most people don’t know lung cancer needs money for research.”
Lung and bronchus cancer caused 142,670 deaths in the U.S. in 2019, more than any other cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Despite it being the most deadly and the second most commonly diagnosed cancer, it receives a fraction of the funding garnered for breast cancer, leukemia, pediatric cancers and lymphoma.
Norris, whose husband died of lung cancer at age 47, said one of the reasons lung cancer receives less funding is because its relatively low five-year survival rate leaves fewer survivors to share their stories.
“We don’t have the legions of survivors who want to say thank you and give back,” she said.
Advances in immunotherapy and targeted therapy are helping change that scarcity. Groups of survivors band together based on their biomarkers to add voices to the need for more research funding.
There’s also a perception lung cancer is always caused by smoking, Norris said. Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, but secondhand smoke, radon or asbestos exposure and air pollution are also contributors.
Although Sturges, 72, was a smoker in his youth, he quit by 1980 and was diagnosed with lung cancer 22 years later without showing any symptoms. Months before his diagnosis, he ran a marathon in San Diego. A year before, he scaled Mount Kilimanjaro.
His diagnosis came after a routine checkup focused more on his heart. While his heart was good, a footnote on his report noted a nodule low on his right lung.
A biopsy two days later revealed the nodule was a malignant tumor. He was shocked.
“I can’t say I sat there and cried or whatever, but I was literally dumbfounded,” he said. “It was truly disbelief.”
An attorney at Gislason & Hunter since 1981, he remembers staying late at the office one night afterward to look up everything he could about the disease. The survival statistics back then were so discouraging he had to quit.
“I just shut the computer down and said: ‘Enough, I can’t read anymore.’”
His lobectomy required a surgeon to open his chest to remove the tumor. The recovery took about three weeks, after which he could only return to work part time at first.
Since then, he’s both experienced and tracked more advanced and beneficial treatments. VATS and the tiny incisions that come with it became more common by the time his cancer returned in 2016, but even more strides have been made in immunotherapy and targeted therapy since.
Cancer free since 2016, Sturges said his goal is for the research momentum to continue. The foundation awarded more than $800,000 in research grants to young investigators in 2019 alone to incentivize gifted young people to pursue projects in the field.
Sturges’ Parade magazine story, meanwhile, seems to have gotten around. A person he hadn’t heard from in 20 to 25 years was among the people who reached out afterward, along with an anonymous writer from Missouri who mailed a handwritten letter sharing their own lung cancer story and some nutrition suggestions.
“It evidently gets around,” he said of his Parade feature, adding he hopes the story raises awareness for early detection and the need for further research.