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Shining a light on lung cancer

Last winter Eric Petersen-Brant believed he had caught a severe respiratory infection that had been making its way around the Decorah, Iowa area. His wife, Jenni, was suffering similar symptoms, so together they visited their primary care provider and were prescribed a round of antibiotics.

Jenni's symptoms quickly cleared up.

Eric's persisted.

Perhaps he'd developed walking pneumonia or asthma, he thought.

As his condition worsened over the next several months, he underwent a chest X-ray. The imaging revealed a suspicious mass on his right lung, between his heart, main bronchial passage and trachea. A following CT scan led to a diagnosis in June: inoperable non-small cell lung cancer.

"I just thought it was some upper respiratory thing that I could not shake," Eric says. "Finding out it was lung cancer was really disappointing, especially after I had made so many healthy changes."

A longtime avid bike rider and healthy eater, Eric had largely quit smoking and drinking years earlier.

Eric Petersen-Brant

"I've always been pretty healthy, so it was a shock," Eric says.

Eric's cancer team, including Drs. Kurt Oettel and Patrick Conway, quickly started the now 54-year-old on a treatment plan that included 33 days of radiation with two concurrent six-day rounds of chemotherapy (he celebrated his birthday with Jenni and the nurses in Infusion Services). In late September, a follow-up appointment showed that the aggressive treatment had worked. Eric's tumor had shrunk nearly 50 percent.

"That was kind of a stressful day waiting for my results," Eric says. "But then it was also such a joyous time with Dr. Oettel and Dr. Conway. It was like, 'OK, we're out of here!'"

Now finished with treatment, Eric's doctors will continue to monitor the cancer at follow-up appointments in three and six months.

"I feel so much better and my breathing is great," Eric says. "I'm back to normal activities. I still have low red blood cell counts, so I guess I'm a little tired at times, but other than that I'm just fine."

Eric attended Gundersen's 2017 Shine a Light on Lung Cancer event, an opportunity to raise awareness about the disease and hear from patients and families affected by lung cancer.

In sharing his story, Eric hopes his words help reduce the stigma that lung cancer only affects heavy smokers or is self-inflicted—misconceptions that people sometimes believe about the disease.

He also hopes others know that living well with lung cancer is possible.

"It doesn't help to be negative," Eric says. "Focusing on the positive and the present was so important for us. Now I'm back to riding my bike a bunch. I've probably ridden 12 hours in the past two weeks. I'm really looking forward to moving past this and living life."

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