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Mind and Body

Waiting to Exhale: Lung Cancer at 21

Bell in July 2010, now 24, with her boyfriend Robert Duck, 29.Taylor Bell

Taylor Bell wasn’t your average college student. The small town girl from Wilmington, N.C., signed with East Carolina University to play Division I soccer, and majored in political science – all while finding time to make new friends.

At 21 years old, she also wasn’t your average lung cancer patient.

Lung cancer kills as many people as the four top cancers combined: breast, colon, pancreatic and prostate. It is unlike any other cancer because of the stigma it carries. When most people think of lung cancer, they think of smoking—and a cancer that “could have been prevented.”

But Bell has never smoked a cigarette in her life.

Bell’s fight with lung cancer began freshman year. Although she trained the same as her teammates, she couldn’t keep up physically, and she had tingling and numbness in her toes. Feeling confused and burned out, she made the difficult decision to leave the team.

“I was really tired, but thought it was just being in college and it was normal, you know, studying, class, friends. But something wasn’t adding up,” she said.

Ten months later, Bell was in the emergency room with severe abdominal pain. An X-ray showed there wasn’t anything abnormal in her abdomen, but her lungs. Doctors discovered that Bell had been living for almost a year with a collapsed left lung, and there was a 1-and-a-half inch mass on it. As a 21-year-old who didn’t smoke, she was told she had lung cancer.

Earlier that year, Bell’s grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died 40 days later. To say that Bell was frightened when she heard the news would be an understatement.

“I was just shocked at first. I will never forget it. I had just seen my grandmother pass away from it, and it was so quick I thought I wasn’t going to have a chance to fight. I never told my parents this, but I didn’t think was going to make it. I thought I was going to die,” she said.

From that moment, life shot into fast-forward motion for Bell. Her friends and family were in disbelief, and she needed to start planning a surgery to remove the cancer immediately.

Dr. Thomas D’Amico, professor of surgery at Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, told FoxNews.com that when he first met Bell, he was not that surprised to find out about her cancer.

“Taylor’s story is less common, we know what lung cancer is, we know it can affect someone in their 20s or 30s. Nothing is a surprise to us. It is less common, but not unusual,” he said.

D’Amico said that unfortunately for young people, they don’t come to the doctor until they have symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath. Then, many doctors misdiagnose them with asthma. By the time the lung cancer is found, it can all too often be too late.

As a young woman, Bell was concerned with undergoing a surgery that would remove a number of ribs and leave her with a massive scar.

But D’Amico wasn’t going to let that happen. He is the pioneer of a minimally invasive lung cancer surgery, called a thorascopic lobectomy, which leaves a patient’s ribs intact, and only two small keyhole incisions.

“There are two very small incisions with specialized instruments and staplers. You don’t have to spread the ribs with a retractor which is the most important advantage,” he said.

Bell had a successful thorascopic lobectomy, totally removing her left lingual and upper lobe in November 2007, and after a difficult recovery, returned to college less than two months later.

“I couldn’t even sit up. It was very painful. I remember it took every bit of me to walk around the block, and it finally hit me, ‘Wow, I lost a lung,’” she said.

Bell said when people heard about her lung cancer, the first thing they asked her is if she smoked. She always wanted to respond, “Would you feel less badly for me if I did?”

D’Amico said that although it is true that the vast majority of people with lung cancer are smokers or former smokers, 10 to 15 percent of people who are diagnosed have never smoked. There may be a genetic link in some families, but most of the time it is just bad luck.

“People think, you smoked and therefore you got what you deserved – whereas no one would say that to a breast cancer survivor. Or colon cancer. Or almost any other kind of cancer,” he said. “When you have lung cancer it is somehow your own responsibility, which isn’t fair. They think this disease is a self-induced problem.”

The overall survival rate for lung cancer is 15 percent, which is very low compared to other cancers. But there are clinical trials in the works to promote lung cancer screening.

“We have mammography screening for breast cancer, colonoscopy screening for colon cancer. Hopefully the clinical trials will demonstrate that we can find a small, early stage tumor rather than a large, late stage one and increase the cure rate,” he said.

Today, Bell works at Leo Jenkins Cancer Center in Greenville, N.C., where she heads programs that support others affected by cancer. Three years after her diagnosis, she has a clean bill of health—and said she can do almost everything she could do with two lungs. D’Amico said Bell’s prognosis is excellent.

“Like a lot of survivors I am in really good shape, I still work out; I get very out of breath in random things, like walking and talking,” she said.

Bell has told her story at various events, and has even traveled with D’Amico to a medical conference, teaching other medical professionals to think outside the box when it comes to lung cancer.

Bell considers herself the new face of lung cancer, and urges others to look beyond the mold of what most think lung cancer is.

“Lung cancer is the number one killer. It can happen to someone who is not half dead in their 80s and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day,” she said. “Smoking is a factor, but for me, I refuse to let it be the main focus.”

Click here to read more from Taylor about her story.