“I just never thought I would get lung cancer,” said Gallipo, who has never smoked or been exposed to secondhand smoke or asbestos. In fact, 10 to 20 percent of lung cancer cases are not linked to smoking.
Gallipo will share her story at “Shine a Light on Lung Cancer,” a free event to honor and support those impacted by lung cancer. This event begins at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Prairie Center on the campus of Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center in Sioux Falls. The program features a panel discussion of lessons learned from the lung cancer experience, and a light meal will be served.
Gallipo was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in the spring of 2015 after a persistent cough wouldn’t go away. By that time, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, bones and liver. “At stage IV they don’t use the word cure. Rather they try to keep it under control,’” she said.
Shocked, Gallipo and her husband, Wayne, walked in the doors of the Prairie Center, home to the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls, and asked about treatment options. That day, they visited with a social worker and were connected to Carole Chell, CNP, Lung Navigator. Gallipo was soon under the care of Heidi McKean, MD, Avera Medical Group Medical Oncologist.
Thankfully, rounds of chemotherapy have controlled Gallipo’s cancer for many months, giving her precious time to spend with her family and meet her newest granddaughter, Stella Rae.
She is now being considered for a clinical trial that would match the specific genetic mutation of her cancer with a chemotherapy drug that’s known to be effective for that tumor driver.
“Similar to Debbie’s case, the signs and symptoms of lung cancer often don’t present until the cancer is at later stages,” Chell said. Symptoms may include a persistent cough, coughing up blood, or shortness of breath.
Because people with a history of heavy smoking are at highest risk of lung cancer, low-dose CT lung screening is recommended for people age 55 to 77 with a smoking history. “Lung cancer is most curable in its earliest stages, so our goal is to find lung cancer earlier,” Chell said. This screening is covered by Medicare and is often covered by health insurance plans for people who qualify.
“If you smoke, ask your doctor if you would benefit from these screenings. We’ve successfully treated several people at the Avera Cancer Institute whose lung cancer was caught in the earliest stages,” Chell added.
“There’s a stigma about lung cancer. People think that they brought this disease upon themselves by smoking. Yet lung cancer is not just a smokers’ disease, and no one ‘deserves’ to get cancer. There are some people who never smoked who develop lung cancer, and some people who have smoked for years who never get lung cancer. We need more research to find out why,” Chell said.
Gallipo says she feels surprisingly good and feels blessed to have been given extra time. She’s hopeful that the clinical trial will help keep her cancer under control for more months to come. In the meantime, her mantra is acceptance of whatever happens – “no matter what.”
“I’ve always been a person of faith, and my faith has grown through this experience. I have a peace and I know I have a heavenly home, but what hurts the most is how this is affecting my family.”