Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: She survived choking and lung cancer diagnosis – and one led to the other

Angela Cooper, who had never smoked, was diagnosed with lung cancer last July and told she had a 40 percent chance of survival. She had surgery in August, was sent home in September and is now cancer-free. She’ll have scans every six months for five years.
Angela Cooper, who had never smoked, was diagnosed with lung cancer last July and told she had a 40 percent chance of survival. She had surgery in August, was sent home in September and is now cancer-free. She’ll have scans every six months for five years. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

Sometimes when things in life don’t seem to be working out, it’s exactly what you need.

Angela Cooper came to that conclusion after one of the more humiliating moments in her life.

Last July, the Tacoma law office administrator was dining with friends at the Metropolitan Grill in Seattle, eating steak medallions. She swallowed a small bite — or tried to.

“I knew right away it had stuck in my throat,” said Cooper, 50. “I grabbed my water glass but instead of getting a drink, I hurried and the water went up my nose. I knew I was in trouble.”

One of Cooper’s friends realized immediately what was happening.

“She did exactly what she should have done, gave me the Heimlich maneuver,” Cooper said. “Everyone in the restaurant was watching — I put on quite a show — and afterward the entire staff was at our table, asking if there was anything they could do.

“I was absolutely humiliated.”

Two days later, her throat was still sore. Recently diagnosed with allergies, she called her doctor, who was on vacation. Cooper called a Tacoma ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. Douglas Sorensen, and scheduled an appointment.

It saved her life.

Sorensen suggested a PET scan of her throat, and Dr. Baiya Krishnadasan conducted the test.

“It took images of Angela’s neck in slices through the top of her chest,” Krishnadasan said. “There was a spot on her lung. Sorenson called me two days later. He’d found a lung mass. It was stage one cancer.”

Cooper, a Tacoma mother of two grown children, was stunned by the diagnosis. She’d never smoked, never lived with a smoker.

“I didn’t know much about lung cancer. I didn’t think it applied to me,” she said. “I started studying, reading everything I could find. I was surprised to find more people die of lung cancer than from breast. colon and prostate cancer, combined.

“The more I learned, the worse the facts got. I had to stop reading.”

Krishnadasan understood. A surgeon who performs operations on the heart, lungs, esophagus and other organs in the chest, he’s dealt with the disease often enough to know the numbers.

“Lung cancer is a pretty dismal disease,” he said. “If it reaches Stage 4, 75 percent don’t survive. And there’s this stigma attached to it.”

Cooper learned about that stigma soon after her diagnosis.

“It’s like a badge of dishonor, a scarlet letter; there’s this immediate judgment that you did this to yourself,” Cooper said. “It’s ‘Oh, so you smoked.’ I’d say, no, I never smoked, then they’d say ‘I’m so sorry.’

“I had people tell me, ‘There’s a warning label on every pack.’ It was shocking. I was devastated by this diagnosis, and people were dismissing me because I must have smoked to bring it on.”

Cooper had a couple of things going for her. One was her nature.

“Angela is a trooper,” Krishnadasan said. “She’s tough.”

The other was her family.

“My husband Barry and I began dating when I was 16, and he was right there for me,” Cooper said. “When I called my older daughter, Stacee, to tell her, I was sobbing and she could barely understand me.

“She’d just taken the bar exam in Portland, but said, ‘I’m packing a bag. I’m on my way.’ She never left my side, and her husband was there, too. My younger daughter, Brittney, was there as often as she could be.”

Three weeks after her diagnosis, Cooper underwent surgery that removed a lobe of her lung.

As she recuperated and awaited test results, she kept reading about lung cancer — and getting angry.

“I don’t understand. Anyone can get mammograms, prostate exams, colonoscopies, but you have to have been a heavy smoker and over 50 to get a lung screening,” she said. “That’s not acceptable to me. The test only costs $300.

“The people who have lung cancer don’t have a voice. Most of them die.”

Cooper’s lab tests came back clean. She will be tested every six months for the next five years.

What she wanted to know most was what had caused her lung cancer. Krishnadasan had a pretty good idea.

“In the Northwest, there’s a lot of asbestos exposure, especially in the shipyards,” Krishnadasan said. “But radon is the most common non-smoking cause of lung cancer. Radon is a gas that lives in the soil. You can’t smell it, see it and you can’t treat it in the soil.

“You breathe it, it’s carcinogenic.”

Cancer-free, Cooper and her family went out to dinner this fall to celebrate Stacee’s passing the bar exam.

The restaurant? The Metropolitan Grill.

“The entire staff remembered me and couldn’t have been kinder or more attentive,” Cooper said. “I guess I’d made an impression the last time I was there.”

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