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NYU Langone doctor stresses anyone can get lung cancer, even if not a smoker

Genetic testing helps lung cancer patient find the right medication
Genetic testing helps lung cancer patient find the right medication 02:44

NEW YORK -- November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

CBS2 is introducing you to a New Yorker diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She recently told reporter Alice Gainer how genetic testing helped determine medication that reduced the size of her tumors and is allowing her to live her life normally while managing it.

"I thought it was the end for me ... um yeah," Elizabeth Jaffe said.

Two years ago, the 61-year-old received a diagnosis she said she never imagined possible.

"I had difficulty walking and it got progressively worse," Jaffe said. "I had other weird symptoms, like food tasted strange, like dulled, and water tasted slimy. It was really odd."

READ MOREAmerican Lung Association urges early detection lung cancer screenings for people at high risk

After two trips to the ER, doctors discovered lesions on her brain.

"She had like lot of spots on the brain. This is one of the biggest one," Dr. Vamsidhar Velcheti of NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center said, showing Gainer.

More testing revealed lung cancer had metastasized to the brain, Jaffe said.

"It's over a 7-centimeter tumor here," Velcheti said.

"I couldn't believe it. I think I smoked one cigarette in my whole life," Jaffe said.

READ MORENew Report Shows Lung Cancer Is Being Detected Earlier And Patients Are Living Longer

According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year in the United States 10-20 percent of lung cancers happen in people who have never smoked before or who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, Gainer reported.

"Anyone with lungs can have lung cancer. That's really important to understand," Velcheti said. "Typically, when we talk about stage 4 lung cancer, you know, we often kind of think about it as it's pretty advanced. There aren't many treatments. That's not true anymore."

Velcheti's team did genetic testing of Jaffe's tumor.

"It's really important to understand the bio marker status. That is like what is a DNA makeup of tumor, what are specific vulnerabilities of the tumor," Velcheti said.

Doing this allows doctors to figure out which biomarkers respond to certain drug therapies, tailoring treatment.

Based on that, Jaffe now takes a targeted cancer drug daily. She also had radiation to shrink the lesions on her brain -- a procedure that freezes cancer cells in the lungs -- and physical therapy.

"The previous lesions here are completely gone. She had really nice response. This is all that's left of the tumor," Velcheti said. "Her scan is completely clear of cancer in the brain."

"I feel like I'm 99 percent better," Jaffe said.

READ MORELung cancer survivors on Long Island rave about immunotherapy, which doctors say is akin to a cure for some

A retired speech therapist for the city's Department of Education, Jaffe is now a tutor, back to traveling, and walking just fine.

It wasn't the end like she feared, and though she'll be on medication for the rest of her life, she's got a new outlook.

"I'm more in the moment and I appreciate life more and I try to do things I want to do because time doesn't last forever," Jaffe said.

But having more of it, when you thought you didn't, is everything.

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