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Penngrove mom beats cancer odds

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Natalie DiMarco accompanied one of her three children on a field trip to the Petrified Forest in Calistoga last week.

No big deal? Think again.

DiMarco’s a lung cancer survivor. Taking field trips with her children ends a six-year journey that started when she felt a shortness of breath. It continued with a series of missed diagnoses before she learned that she had stage IV lung cancer. Her journey ended in January 2013 when DiMarco received her last chemotheraphy treatment.

Only 10 percent of those diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer survive longer than five years. DiMarco has had no sign of the disease since her last chemotherapy treatment.

“Life is starting to get more normal,” said the 37-year-old from Penngrove.

DiMarco was a 31-year-old mother, having just given birth to her second child, in March 2009. A few months later, while in session with a personal trainer, DiMarco began to feel out of breath. It was a shortness of breath she did not associate with being tired from exercise. It was something else.

Her doctor said she suffered from asthma. But, DiMarco had never experienced asthma-related symptoms. She sought another opinion.

The second opinion was just as baffling as the first.

She was told she was “allergic to Sonoma County.” She doubted that diagnosis as well.

Over the following months, DiMarco began to develop cold-like symptoms that were accompanied by an escalating “wheezing” cough. She became convinced that the problem was related to her lungs. A visit to a doctor ensured her that her lungs sounded fine. They decided to look at her heart instead.

It was in January 2010, that a nurse practitioner finally suggested a chest x-ray.

DiMarco was told she had pneumonia and was prescribed antibiotics. The symptoms did not clear. DiMarco ended up at an urgent care center a month later.

The doctors’ consensus was that she had a blood clot in her lung. Physicians wanted to remove a piece of the lung for testing. After being misdiagnosed for a year, DiMarco decided instead to visit the Stanford University Medical Center.

On her youngest daughter’s birthday, DiMarco had a biopsy. Three days later she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

As is often the case with lung cancer, diagnosis comes in the later stages. That is particularly true when the patient is relatively young. The 31-year-old mother had lung cancer; the most advanced form of the disease when the cancer has spread beyond the lungs into other areas of the body.

DiMarco learned along the way that lung cancer treatment and knowledge of the disease is not as advanced as doctors would like.

“Lung cancer is a very stigmatized cancer,” said Bonnie J. Addario, lung cancer survivor and founder of the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. “Most people only think it’s a smokers’ disease. It is not. 60 percent of those newly diagnosed, whether young or old, are people who have never smoked or quit smoking decades ago.”

It was through the help of the Addario foundation that DiMarco began to proceed with treatment.

Hope was the key to the young mother’s battle with the disease.

“It was not about how much time do we have left,” DiMarco said. “My doctor never talked about that. I never talked about that.

“These are the cards we have been dealt. Let’s play this correctly and gather as much information as possible. I did not want to be treated as a statistic. I wanted to be the outlier in this all.”

DiMarco’s was just one of many young people getting lung cancer. Doctors and researchers are at a loss to explain it.

“What we’re hearing quite often is that they’re athletes and they’re very fit — the people you would least expect to have cancer, let alone lung cancer,” Addario said.

This question is the focus of the Genomics of Young Cancer Study, a partner organization of the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute.

For further information visit alcmi.net and proceed to research on the banner.

(Contact Joshua Gutierrez at argus@arguscourier.com)