Healthy Living: Being diagnosed with lung cancer as a 'never smoker'

SEATTLE -- November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths each year.

Alan Herr has never smoked a day in his life, so his lung cancer diagnosis came as a surprise.

“Really the story is oatmeal," he said.

Fall of 2012 was business as usual.

"I would have oatmeal in the morning, and one day I inhaled some oatmeal," he said.

Some time had passed, and he heard some rattling in his chest, “so I assumed, 'oh it’s just the oatmeal talking,' right?”

Alan's symptoms became impossible to ignore though.

“Oh well, it’s fear isn’t it? I mean, you don’t really want to know the answer.”

It was obvious the oatmeal was not the problem, so Alan finally went in for his MRI.

“I could see the x-ray and it looked very odd, and I thought, well, maybe that’s pneumonia, I don’t feel like I have pneumonia," he said.

This time, his gut was right. It was not pneumonia.

“I have multiple tumors in both lungs.”

Alan was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer at just 43 years old.

“It was just an acceptance kind of, you know, I had a good cry. I was by myself when I heard the news … and then move forward. You have to go forward," he said.

He has never smoked a day in his life.

According to the American Cancer Society,  the same goes for the other 20 percent of people who have avoided smoking and are still diagnosed with lung cancer.

“It’s really common, people will say, why me? We love to ask that question. But, why not me? That’s another way of thinking of it. I’m just like anybody else and why should I be excluded from getting cancer.”

Alan turned to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for support and treatment.

“I was on chemotherapy probably off and on for 4 years," he said.

He began seeking clinical trials at SCCA. The first one in 2016 was unsuccessful.

“That didn’t work for me because a lot of immunotherapy doesn’t work for never smokers.”

But he isn't giving up.

“The second one, the one I am currently on been on for about a year and 4 months or so, and it has worked really well," he said.

And he doesn't want anyone else diagnosed with cancer to give up either.

“It’s a difficult disease, it still is, but I tell people that this is the best time in the world to have cancer. We wanna be done with cancer, like I’m just gonna get cured. But maybe what we wanna do is learn to live with cancer, long enough so that something curative can come along.”

Alan has turned his diagnosis into an opportunity of sorts.

“What am I going to do about it? How can I be hopeful and a blessing to people around me? It is really important to live deliberately, to have short forgiveness lists and love and care for people, you can do that even if you’re sick, it’s amazing," he said.

Alan says one of the most important pieces of his journey has been his relationship with his doctors. He urges anyone else with cancer to find a doctor they can trust.