Millie Torchia remembers that day in Summer 2017 clearly: It was the day she found out that the cough she couldn’t seem to kick wasn’t a symptom of pneumonia, but of stage IV lung cancer. The 43-year-old mother of three had never smoked and had rarely been sick beyond a cold. Upon hearing the diagnosis, she felt as if heat were rising through her body, and her world flipped upside-down.
Torchia, a vice president in the financial industry, had no risk factors for lung cancer — and in addition to not smoking, she doesn’t drink, and she eats healthy foods.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to everyone,” she told HealthCentral. “Be really grateful for every day you have and appreciate it, because you just don’t know when things might change.”
Torchia spoke with HealthCentral about her journey with cancer and becoming a lung cancer awareness advocate. She shares her story in part to remind people that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, regardless of smoking status.
HealthCentral (HC): As a non-smoker, did you ever consider the possibility that you could get lung cancer?
Millie Torchia: No. I never did. I never thought that a person who didn’t smoke would get lung cancer. I was shocked to hear the news. When I heard it, I said, “How could that be? I don’t smoke!”
HC: How has the experience changed you?
Torchia: I feel like sometimes I’ve been thrown all around emotionally. But it has also brought some good things. Cancer can be very tough, but it’s made me realize the importance of what I should focus on: my family, my children, spending time with them, and enjoying those small moments with them. It has brought me closer to my husband, to my coworkers, my friends, and my community. That gives you a lot of strength — strength that you didn’t think you had. It has brought me closer to God…. I’m grateful for every day I get. It’s a gift. It should’ve always been that way, but I never realized it.
HC: What do you wish people knew about lung cancer?
Torchia: Lung cancer is one of the least funded out of all cancers. Maybe it’s because of the stigma [related to smoking]. But in April 2018, I’m going to the Life and Breath rally in Washington, D.C. We’re going to demand an increase for research funding and represent the 433 Americans who die every day because of this disease. I’m going to go and be part of this; at least it will make me feel better to do something while I can. If there were more money for research, maybe there would be more therapies and options for people like me.
HC: What have you learned this year that could help someone else in your position?
Torchia: Be aware [that] genomic testing [can be done after lung cancer diagnosis], because knowing your mutation can help. When I went to my first oncologist, he didn’t know about that. I have the ALK positive mutation.
Also, one thing that has helped me is a Facebook group for people with that ALK positive mutation. It makes you realize how many people are going through this journey, of all backgrounds and all ages. I’ve met a lot of moms like me — younger even. The group has really helped me because it’s made me share my experience, and hear about other people going through it. When I first found out I had cancer, I thought I was the only mom who was 43 who had this.
HC: What has been the hardest part of your diagnosis?
Torchia: I have three daughters who are 9, 8, and 4. Besides getting the shock [of the diagnosis], I was worried for them. I think that I’m fine with everything that happened to me, but it just breaks my heart into a million pieces when I think about the pain that I can give them if they don’t have me to go to things at school and activities, and they won’t have me by their side. That’s what just kills me inside. They are the ones who give me the biggest strength to go on. I get up every morning, grateful for everything that I have and fighting to be optimistic. But sometimes it’s very painful.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism and a former newspaper reporter. As a freelance health journalist, she writes about everything from deadly diseases to elite athletes, including superbugs, opioids, ticks and laughter yoga. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Nature, FiveThirtyEight, Pacific Standard, STAT News and other publications. In her spare time, she and her family love to explore trails via running, cross-country skiing and mountain biking in Minneapolis.