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COVID-19 brings lung cancer risks to light

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Linda Wortman proves anything can be done with one lung. She has run a 10k in every continent and a 5k in every state. PHOTO COURTESY OF LINDA WORTMAN

Big Sky local advocates for better lung cancer screening, treatment and care

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Twelve years and three months ago Linda Wortman had her lung removed due to a bout with lung cancer. Wortman’s husband Jerry sat beside her in the hospital teaching her how to breathe again. “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe,” for five hours he prompted her. Now a runner, biker and mountaineer, Wortman is a staunch advocate for lung cancer research. 

A member of the American Lung Association, co-founder and CEO of the Wortman Lung Cancer Foundation and determined to quell the stigma that only smokers are at risk for the disease that kills 422 people every day.

The battle with lung cancer isn’t simply canvassing for funding and awareness, it’s that, coupled with an outdated stigma that the disease is only associated with smoking. In 2006, when Wortman went to her doctor with shoulder pain and frequent coughing fits, because she was relatively healthy and never a smoker, they marked it off as psychological.

“If you haven’t smoked more than 100 cigarettes in your life, it’s really hard to get a CT scan,” said Wortman. “There are no funds for research because of this stigma.”

As her pain grew worse over the next couple years, Wortman knew it had to be something more and went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for a second opinion. At the time she was working as a flight attendant for Northwestern Airlines. After her appointment, she had planned to head back for a flight to Amsterdam, but instead was asked to return to the clinic immediately. Less than 48 hours after she had first seen her Mayo Clinic doctor, she was looking at a 3.5 cm tumor in an x-ray of her lungs, while being wheeled in for surgery to have her lung removed.

“Your lungs are like your furnace,” said Wortman. “Once lung cancer starts, it’s really tiny and really slow.”

In recovery, Wortman’s insurance required her to go through nicotine therapy, even though she had never smoked in her life, a requirement she says is based on outdated statistics, not reality. “They treat you like you’re an addict,” she said of the experience. In therapy, Wortman said patients are taught that nicotine is the most addictive substance in the world. They learn all about the lungs and what “they”—the lung cancer survivors—did wrong to get cancer in the first place.

Wortman has always been an activist—she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the same streets that were recently desecrated in BLM protests following the killing of George Floyd. After surviving lung cancer however, her activist spirit was rekindled. Wortman was one of three airline stewardesses who started the petition to ban smoking on airplanes. She began running, vowing (and succeeding) to run a 5k in every state and a 10k on every continent.

As part of an altitude sickness study led by renowned climber and Bozeman resident Conrad Anker, Wortman climbed Mt Kilimanjaro—an accomplishment she spoke about in her talk “Beating the Odds: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with One Lung” at TEDxBigSky in 2017. After learning how to breathe following her surgery, she said summiting Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa standing an impressive 19,341 feet above sea level, was a close second. She credits her sheer determination and her high-altitude lifestyle in Big Sky to her success.

She got through using the same rhythmic mantra technique that had saved her post-surgery, chanting: “Heel, toe. Heel, toe. Heel, toe,” all the way to the top.

“If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer,” Wortman said in her TEDx talk. “You can live with one lung. You can run and you can climb with one lung.”

Research is on the rise—Ping Yang, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic genetic epidemiologist, recently determined that lung cancer may be linked by genetics, specifically a gene mutation called GDR, most commonly found in women. But with smoking on the decline and lung cancer diagnosis increasing, it can’t come fast enough.

With COVID-19 further illuminating the importance of lung health, Wortman hopes awareness is on the rise—many lung cancer cases have been discovered from the increase in lung screenings due to the pandemic. 

On the curtails of the successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the Wortman Lung Cancer Foundation hopes to host a similar contest called First2Burst, which involves participants blowing up a balloon for donations.

“My hope with COVID is that attention is spreading from this pulmonary disease,” said Wortman. “We need to be checking for this regularly, not just when there’s an emergency. People need to know [lung cancer is] anybody’s disease.”

Today, Wortman is usually outside, employing her lone lung to the fullest, whether skiing, running or biking—possibly more than most anyone uses their two. The Wortman’s have been married 45 years and have three sons, one daughter and a total of seven grandchildren.

Through their experiences in hospitals—Jerry has suffered his share of close calls—they have learned to trust medical professionals, something their children struggle with, which has caused a rift in their family. Although painful, her fractured relationship with her children is just another driving force behind Linda’s tenacity to advocate for those struggling through the lung cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery process.

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