Surviving Lung Cancer: Molli Graham's Story


Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer death in the United States, and while cigarette smoking is the number one risk for developing lung cancer, about 15% of lung cancer occurs in people who have never smoked- and it's very different from cancer caused by smoking. It has a different etiology and its behavior- like growing a little more slowly -causes it to be treated very differently.

Cancers caused by smoking develop a little bit every day. A lung cell develops a little mutation, then another mutation and another, and you eventually end up with cancer. Non-smoking lung cancer doesn't have all the mutations - it has very few and the mutations are specific for non-smoking lung cancer. Today there are therapies that can be targeted at these non-smoking gene mutations.

Molli Graham was just 35 years old and in the middle of training for a marathon when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012. Today, the mother of three is in remission thanks to a targeted treatment.

"I was completely shocked when I found out I had lung cancer. I was in the best shape of my life. I was running five miles a day and training for marathons on the weekends, running up to twenty miles. I had never felt better. I had no signs, no symptoms. I actually went to the hospital for stomach pain. We thought I had appendicitis," says Molli.

Although her first instinct was fear that she was going to die, Molli refused to give up for the sake of her young children. She wanted the most aggressive plan out there. She transferred to Huntsman Cancer Institute where she started working with Dr. Wallace Akerley, who is leading clinical research into non-smoking lung cancer.

Because non-smoking lung cancers tend to be more common in younger people they are hard to catch early. When Molli was first diagnosed, part of her lower left lung was removed, along with 13 lymph nodes. She also endured four rounds of two different kinds of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, two years later, a scan showed that her cancer had returned. Surgery was no longer an option and she was given a year to live.

At this point, Dr. Akerley stepped in and put Molli on a gene mutation specific therapy. Since the non-smoking lung cancer has very few mutations, this targeted therapy blocks the mutation and provides a dramatic response in the patient. Says Akerley, "In terms of cancer regression, patients get stronger and are really truly benefitting from this therapy that makes them near normalthey're feeling well and that is very different from a patient who has a smoking cancer where we commonly have to use chemotherapies. I can sit in a room with patients on these pill forms of non-smoking cancer therapy and they look tougher and stronger than I do."

"I take it twice a day and it works wonders so far. I'm back to running. I'm active. I feel good again," says Molli. She feels so good, in fact, that last September she ran a marathon. "It was a very emotional finish line. I was just so grateful to be alive at that point. This is just like a marathon. It's the marathon of my life. I will finish it, and I will win."

In terms of risk factors for non-smoking lung cancer, doctors point to radon - a radioactive gas that seeps up from the ground from granite and byproducts of uranium - as the second leading cause of lung cancer. Other environmental causes have also been implicated, including exposure to second-hand smoke, asbestos and uranium.

Molli puts it perfectly when she says, "it's not about who is smoking and who's not. At the end of the day, it's about cancer and lives matter. We need to put the stigma away and focus on that. I'm not just a number."

Thanks to this new therapy, Molli now has hope for the future.

For more details on Molli's story, click here.

If you are interested in learning more about radon and its potential effects, please check out this video.

Huntsman Cancer Institute is an NCI-designated cancer research facility and hospital located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, and meets the highest standards for cancer care and research. HCI serves cancer patients throughout the Intermountain West and provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about the Huntsman Cancer Institute, please visit