Young veteran with rare mutation taking things as they come after lung cancer diagnosis

May 06, 2024
a stylish young woman poses in front of grand old homes of Charleston SC
Laura Reed was in shock for months after a lung cancer diagnosis. She learned she has a genetic mutation that can cause lung cancer in younger adults. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Laura Reed had had three colonoscopies by the time she was 38, a preventive measure because her mother died of colon cancer at age 38, only nine months after being diagnosed.

Reed hasn’t been diagnosed with colon cancer. But at the age of 38, she found herself with a surprise lung cancer diagnosis.

“I was about to turn the same age that she was when she died, so I’d been thinking a lot about her and cancer, and it was even more of a shock to find out that I had lung cancer basically at the same age that she had colon cancer," she said. “Just realizing how young of a person she was and having a husband and two children to try and take care of at that age. It really gave me a new perspective about her and her life.”

Now, under the care of doctors at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, Reed has passed the nine-month mark at which her mother died. She’s hopeful for the future. And she’s determined to make the most of her time.

A lingering cough

It was a little cold. Nothing major and it went away, except for the cough. The cough lingered from May 2022 until her annual doctor’s appointment in April 2023.

Reed now owns her own jewelry business, Margerite and Motte. But in a previous career, she had been a nuclear surface warfare officer on aircraft carriers, so she saw her primary care provider every year at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Health Care System. She mentioned the cough, and her doctor suggested they get an X-ray to check it out.

The X-ray revealed a nodule. Lung nodules are fairly common for Navy veterans, the doctor reassured her; nonetheless, they scheduled a CT scan for more information.

“The CT scan found a 6-centimeter mass in my right lung. So that started the journey because there was nothing else that a mass that big could be,” Reed said. A biopsy the following week confirmed that it was cancer. “It was very quick – a little over a week and a half from finding the nodule to finding out that it was lung cancer.”

Reed was in shock – for months, in fact.

"I’m still trying to take every day just one day at a time and learning more about me because I feel like it’s so easy to get caught up in what everybody else wants you to do."

Laura Reed

She wanted a second opinion, just to be sure, and a close loved one recommended that she seek out John Wrangle, M.D., at Hollings. She met with Wrangle and decided to move her cancer care to Hollings, the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in South Carolina.

Testing revealed that she had an ALK mutation. The ALK, or anaplastic lymphoma kinase, gene makes a protein involved in cell growth in embryos, but it shuts down before birth. Sometimes, though, it turns back on and attaches itself to another gene, which can then cause cells to grow out of control.

ALK mutations cause about 5% of non-small cell lung cancer cases in the U.S. People diagnosed with lung cancer and this mutation tend to be younger, with half of patients under the age of 52. Nearly all of these patients are diagnosed only after the cancer has spread, or metastasized, and reached Stage 4.

That was the case for Reed, whose cancer had spread into the pleura, a membrane that surrounds the lungs. Because the cancer was Stage 4, surgery wasn’t recommended. The VA had started Reed on a TKI, or tyrosine kinase inhibitor, a type of targeted therapy that blocks enzymes that carry messages prompting cells to grow or divide. Now, she takes pills twice per day.

“The first CT scan after diagnosis, the tumor was basically gone, melted away,” she said.

However, she knows that with Stage 4 cancer, doctors do not speak of a cure. This has given her a certain amount of clarity.

“I’m still trying to take every day just one day at a time and learning more about me because I feel like it’s so easy to get caught up in what everybody else wants you to do. And it hasn’t really served me well. Cancer has kind of given me a second chance,” she said.

“Because when you’re given the way that you know you’re going to die, it’s an awakening experience. And with me being able to live for years, it makes you think about how you want to live your life. So that’s my goal – figuring out what I want my life to look like.”

Lung Force Hero

One of the things that Reed decided to do was to work with the American Lung Association on its advocacy efforts. She’s friends with stylist Andrea Serrano and happened to be having lunch with her on the day of her CT scan.

“She was basically the first person that I told, ‘Hey, there’s something going on,’” Reed said.

It turned out that Serrano’s mother had died of lung cancer, and that Serrano had recently gone to Washington, D.C., as an American Lung Association Lung Force Hero to advocate for research funding, early detection and affordable health care.

This year, Serrano was by Reed’s side as she traveled to Washington as the Charleston-area Lung Force Hero. They met with other lung health advocates from across the nation as well as Reed’s Congresswoman, Rep. Nancy Mace, and staffers for Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.

“It was very intense, but it was amazing to be a part of something bigger than myself,” Reed said.

Now, she’s focusing on the things that are most important to her. She’s grateful that research has progressed in the decades since her mother’s death to give so many more options to people diagnosed with cancer.

“The cancer is stable, and I feel great. No radiation, no chemo, no surgery – which may change the longer I live. But that’s a great thing to hear: ‘We’ll worry about that as time goes by.’ So there’s a lot of hope for a long life.”