In the winter of 2012, LeAnne Bonser thought she had the weirdest cold. The 35-year-old Richmond, Virginia mom had recently run the Marine Corps Marathon with her husband, Justin, 37. Both had finished in less than four hours, and LeAnne was still easily running five miles a day — six, if she could fit in the extra mile before picking up her younger daughter from preschool.
But she also had a cough that would not quit for a month. Around Presidents' Day, she went to a local urgent-care center. A doctor there ordered a chest X-ray, which revealed congestion in LeAnne's right lung. He diagnosed pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. "She didn't seem sick, so that was sort of a bombshell," Justin says. A far bigger one was about to fall on the Bonser family.
Days after starting her prescription, LeAnne noticed that she was coughing up little specks of blood. A quick Internet search suggested that this could happen with pneumonia, so LeAnne didn't worry … until just after she went to bed on Thursday, March 1. That was when she woke up coughing, looked down, and saw splotches of bright red blood on her tissue. Now alarmed, she got dressed to go to the emergency room, then waited until Justin, an account executive with a medical devices firm, arrived home at 11 P.M. from a business trip. He stayed at the house so they wouldn't have to wake up and scare their daughters, Kylie and Ava, then 7 and 5.
At the ER, LeAnne showed a doctor her bloody tissue. He immediately ordered a CT scan, which revealed a 4.5-centimeter mass in her right lung.
She had one thought: I'm dead.
When LeAnne was 18, her father had been diagnosed with a "lung mass." He had smoked as a young man, but had quit before LeAnne was born. Six months after his diagnosis, her healthy, athletic dad was dead from lung cancer.
LeAnne called Justin. He, too, made an instantaneous connection to LeAnne's dad. He remembers holding the phone and shaking his head.
"Actually, he screamed," LeAnne says. "'No. No. Nooooo!'"
All she could think was, Who's going to help my girls pick out their prom dresses?
Preparing for the Worst
That morning, the couple saw a lung specialist, who scheduled a biopsy for the following Monday. "He didn't say 'cancer,'" Justin recalls. "But you don't have to work in the medical field to know what 'mass,' 'biopsy,' and instant appointments mean."
Back at their neat-as-a-pin Colonial home on a leafy cul-de-sac, LeAnne tried to show Justin how to operate the washing machine: "I thought, I'm going to be dead soon and he's going to need to know how to do this." He refused to learn. He was riding waves of denial, telling himself it all had to be a mistake. LeAnne had never smoked. She ate a salad at practically every meal — leafy greens were supposed to prevent cancer! And both of their families had already had their "health bad luck" — LeAnne's dad died in his 40s; Justin's father died in his 50s after a heart attack.
The biopsy results showed that LeAnne's mass was malignant, though it did not definitively identify the type of lung cancer. Another Internet search confirmed LeAnne's fears: More than half of Americans who get lung cancer are dead within a year of diagnosis. After doing the math, LeAnne went to sleep thinking, "If I live as long as my dad, I won't even have another Christmas with my girls."
One morning that week, she woke up very early. Justin was not in bed, so she went downstairs to find him. The door to his study was locked. She knocked, then banged. He wouldn't answer. "You are scaring me!" LeAnne yelled. Finally, Justin opened the door. There were papers all over the floor. He was trying to figure out exactly how much and what kind of life insurance the couple had. "I have been diagnosed with cancer for one day, and you are planning a life without me?" she yelled at her husband. "One day!"
"What if I have to raise the girls by myself?" he yelled back. "Can I work? Do I need a nanny? Can I afford a nanny? Where do I find a nanny? What if I can't live without you?" Justin burst into tears, and LeAnne held him close.
The following Monday, LeAnne and Justin went to a local thoracic surgeon. At first, they were elated when he said he could remove the tumor — possibly "minimally invasively," but most likely via a thoracotomy. Justin knew what that surgery entailed: making a five- to 10-inch incision, spreading the ribs with a car jack–like tool and cutting through tissue. There was a higher risk of infection and the recovery time could be weeks longer than after the less invasive operation.
Through his network of colleagues and friends of colleagues, Justin found Sandeep J. Khandhar, M.D., one of roughly 200 American physicians who specialize in minimally invasive thoracic surgery. The Bonsers drove to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia, where Dr. Khandhar ordered a PET scan to find out if the cancer had spread, then reviewed the results along with LeAnne's other tests. The Bonsers were stunned when the surgeon said he didn't think LeAnne's situation was hopeless. In fact, Dr. Khandhar was confident he could remove her tumor with an operation that would leave her with two small scars (1/2 inch and 1 1.2 inches long) — and a far shorter and less painful recovery than she'd have with the other surgery.
Breaking the Bad News
The Bonsers were trying hard not to scare their young daughters. "This all happened very quickly," LeAnne says, "and the truth is, we didn't know what 'the truth' was. Also the girls knew how my dad had died." So, right after they scheduled surgery with Dr. Khandhar for April 2, 2012 — just 32 days after LeAnne had gone to the ER — the Bonsers sat the girls down on the big leather couches in their family room. Justin could find no words. LeAnne managed to say, "I have something in my lungs, but we are doing everything we can to fight it, to make me better." Ava, their 5-year-old, looked confused; Kylie dropped her head into her hands and wouldn't look at her mother.
LeAnne did the only thing she could think of to help everyone cope: She behaved absolutely normally. "I took Ava to preschool every day, and Kylie to her swim meets," she recalls. "And I read to them every night." The Three Little Pigs felt like a prayer: The big bad wolf trying to blow down their house was lung cancer. Theirs was a home made of brick.
With Dr. Khandhar's permission, LeAnne also kept running. On the Saturday before her operation, she and Justin did a 10K race. "It made me feel better," he admits. "Like, wow, she is strong."
The family spent the day before the surgery together and went out for dinner, and LeAnne gave each of her girls a mother-daughter bracelet before bed. She thought, God, I don't want to leave this.
The next morning, Dr. Khandhar operated on LeAnne for nearly three hours through two minimal incisions, as planned. Her tumor turned out to be only 1.8 centimeters long, but it was surrounded by fluid and scar tissue that extended all the way to her heart. Two of the three lobes of her right lung had to be removed. But it appeared to Dr. Khandhar that the cancer had not spread (the pathology report would give the final word).
LeAnne had tried to prepare herself for whatever she might hear when she woke up after the operation. But she hadn't expected what Dr. Khandhar actually said: "Take a lap around the unit." So, in an anesthetic fog, LeAnne walked the 500 feet or so — slowly, and with Justin's assistance.
LeAnne's hospital stay was short — just two days. But she had to wait another week for Dr. Khandhar's call with the pathology report. Her tumor was a non–small cell neuroendocrine carcinoma — a subtype that tends to be less aggressive than others. Given the current understanding of genetics, the surgeon says, it's impossible to know whether LeAnne's cancer was related to her father's. The really good news, though, was that it hadn't spread to a single lymph node, which meant she didn't need chemotherapy or radiation. Dr. Khandhar simply told her to get annual CT scans.
For the first time since her diagnosis, LeAnne cried: "Actually, I sobbed. I crumpled in a heap on the floor and completely lost it."
The Happiest Mile
A week after getting that news, and with the surgeon's blessing, LeAnne started running again: "I ran the slowest, happiest mile of my life. Kylie went with me the whole way." A month after the surgery, the couple started training. They had planned to run the 2012 New York City marathon, but it was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. LeAnne quickly signed up for the Richmond marathon. Justin had to go on a business trip on race day, but he wanted to be with LeAnne in spirit, so he ran 26.2 miles around their hometown the weekend before. "The girls and I held up signs along the way," LeAnne says. "We sprayed him with Silly String at the 'finish line' and gave him a homemade medal."
The following Saturday, LeAnne ran the official race. "I was huffing and puffing like the wolf in The Three Little Pigs," she says. "But then I looked around and saw Christmas decorations. I thought, Hmmm, I wonder what Kylie, Ava, and Justin want for presents. Then I gasped. Just gasped. Wow, I thought, I am winning this race."
3 Key Questions for Women
1. What are the risk factors for lung cancer?
Smoking (linked to the most deaths by far), exposure to toxins (like secondhand smoke, radon, and asbestos), increasing age, and radiation therapy to the breast or chest.
2. Can I inherit lung cancer?
"A predisposition can be inherited," says Adi Gazdar, M.D., of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. A genetic mutation (like BRCA1 for breast cancer) carries the highest risk. Recently, the EGFR T790M gene mutation has been linked to the disease in nonsmoking younger women.
3. Should I Be Screened?
Only if you are between ages 55 and 80 and smoked a pack or more of cigarettes per day for at least 30 years and are still smoking or quit within the last 15. Low-dose CT scans are used to screen for lung cancer, but they have a high rate of false positives, which can lead to unnecessary procedures.
Join the fight against lung cancer: To find out more, go to .