Published on October 1, 2020
Wife, Mother, Advocate Dies of Lung Cancer at Age 46
Katherine Bensen didn’t fit the demographic of someone with lung cancer. The nagging cough that affected her at age 40 didn’t slow down this software salesperson and busy mom of four. At least not right away.
When her energy ebbed more than flowed, Katherine went back to her doctor for additional tests. She had never considered it could be cancer and was shocked to receive a diagnosis of stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Katherine never smoked. And she wasn’t nearly the average age of someone who is typically diagnosed with lung cancer, which is age 70, according to the American Cancer Society. Katherine was a young, healthy woman who had just been diagnosed with a deadly disease.
What is Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer?
Non-small cell lung cancer is a disease where cancer cells form in the tissues of the lung. Smoking is the major risk factor for non-small cell lung cancer, although there are increasing rates in non-smokers.
Genetic Factors and Biomarkers
Over time, exposure to radon, secondhand smoke, indoor air pollution, and genetic mutations such as epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) can lead to lung cancer.1 Patients with the EGFR mutation may benefit from targeted treatment such as immunotherapies.
Studies show that people with a family history of lung cancer are at increased risk. In one case-control study that looked at more than 2,400 relatives of 316 non-smokers diagnosed with lung cancer, there was a 25 percent increased risk of any cancer among first-degree relatives.1
Approximately 20 to 30 percent of patients with lung cancer have genetic mutations such as the KRAS mutation and research is leading to personalized therapies for each specific case, bringing hope to patients and their families.
Testing can also show whether a patient has a biomarker, which is a broad subcategory of medical signs that can be predictors of cancer.
For Katherine, the cause of her lung cancer was unclear.
Becoming a Patient Advocate
Katherine was given a short prognosis — 10 to 12 months to live.2 But working with her medical team and trying various treatments like immunotherapies, she lived five more years before succumbing to the disease at age 46. During that time, the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan became a tireless advocate for otherwise healthy young people like herself who would not typically be screened for lung cancer.
“I knew something was wrong with me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” Katherine told a crowd during her keynote speech at the 2017 Minnesota Oxygen Ball, held by the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest.3
Her lymph nodes were swollen, and she felt “off,” but time and again she was brushed aside by doctors. At first, she ignored the symptoms too. She was a busy mom of four and being tired is just part of the life of a working parent and wife. Cancer had never crossed her mind, even when her general practitioner ordered an X-ray and biopsy.
“If early detection and screening was developed, and knowing what I know now, I could have gotten ahead of the cancer before it became stage IV,” Katherine said.3
Her family suffered a devastating loss on September 8, 2020. Katherine left behind her husband of 20 years, her four children and a legacy of hope for future patients.
How to Be Your Own Advocate
Ask questions when something doesn’t feel right. If you aren’t satisfied with the answer, ask more questions. Get a second opinion or a third.
Too many young and seemingly healthy people are pushed aside during routine check-ups when they do not fit the demographic profile for someone with cancer. We see this time and time again in women younger than age 40 who eventually learn that they have breast cancer.
Unless you are a tobacco user between the ages of 55 and 64, it is unlikely that you would be screened for lung cancer. More diagnoses like Katherine’s may lead to screening changes and updates to clinical guidelines for early detection. For now, continue to be your own best advocate.
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1Dubin S. Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers. Mo Med. 2020 Jul-Aug; 117(4): 375-379.
2Make the best of every day: Nolan, daughter discuss her fight with lung cancer. Duluth News Tribune.
3Minnesota Oxygen Ball 2017 Key Note Katherine Benson. YouTube.
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