Two women find friendship battling lung cancer together

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and doctors say lung cancer causes more cancer deaths than any other cancer in Utah. But it was that very disease that brought two women from different worlds together for life.

While Maria Fandl was recovering from lung cancer, she took late night strolls through the hallways of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Maria Fandl after lung cancer surgery

“Well, they would wake you up at two in the morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep. So I figured out how to deal with all the wires and went on walks,” she says. “I didn’t know I was disturbing anybody while on my walks.”

“I saw her walking by, and I yelled out, ‘Hey you!’ And, at least that is what I think I said. Hopefully, I was more polite than that,” says Terry Roper.

Roper invited her Fandl into her room. The two would find out they had a lot in common, like having their operations the same day.

“Both of them were diagnosed with lung cancer and both of them were non-smoking lung cancers, meaning that neither of them had ever picked up a cigarette ever in their life. They had not been exposed to second-hand smoke,” says their Doctor Thomas Varghese Jr.

Dr. Varghese is the Executive Medical Director and Chief Value Officer at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He says non-smoking lung cancer is rather common in Utah.

“If you think about a state like us here in Utah, we have the highest non-smoking lung cancer incidents in the entire country by far,” he says. “Lung cancer is still the number one cancer killer even here in Utah.”

The doctor says some of the reasons Utahns see more lung cancer cases is because of air pollution, high radon levels, and life choices.

“Don’t be cavalier with your health. Just because you don’t smoke doesn’t necessarily mean you escape the potential impact of lung cancer,” says Dr. Varghese. “Around 230,000 Americans every single year will be diagnosed with lung cancer and sadly there will be close to 170,000 to 180,000 deaths every single year from lung cancer.”

The doctor says before the pandemic swept the nation, cancer mortality was dropping across the board because of better cancer screenings and education.

“Sadly one of the things that have happened as a result of this pandemic is every single one of those elements of care has been disrupted,” says the doctor.

Dr. Thomas Varghese, Dr. Neli Ulrich, & Dr. Paul LaStayo

There are two fears doctors face — One, people won’t get their check-ups and screenings that can detect cancer in the early stages, and two, there won’t be enough room in the ICU after surgeries because of the rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Dr. Varghese says, “Imagine you’re the loved one or the caregiver of a cancer patient and all of a sudden you need to get your treatment, and then somebody is coming and saying, ‘Sorry we have no beds. We need to postpone your care.'”

He goes on to add, “We are part of the University of Utah Health system, and our COVID patients are being admitted down to the University which allows us to still take care of cancer patients here at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. But you can imagine if we end up, as the ICU beds keep getting filled up, and more and more patients keep getting admitted, at some point, you’re going to have a tipping point, and then COVID patients are going to come up to Huntsman. Then, the only way we can respond is we would have to shut down for a period in time.”

Dr. Varghese says treatments are more detailed because of the pandemic. Doctors are working harder to expand people’s lives so they can enjoy family and friends around them.

Terry Roper after lung cancer surgery

“You can have a support system that may not be there with you in a treatment or during surgery,” says Roper. “But, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a support system at home that you can rely on.”

Fandl and Roper are roughly four years into remission. After five years, they will be able to celebrate being cancer-free. Till then, the two insist on scheduling all their check-ups together with Dr. Vargheses.

Fand says, “That day we lost a lung, but we gained a friendship.”

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