Frida Orozco is a lung cancer survivor and a Lung Force Hero for the American Lung Association. For Women’s Lung Health Week, she shares her journey through an unexpected diagnosis, recovery, and beyond.
At 28 years old, the last thing on Frida Orozco’s mind was lung cancer. Though she had a cough for months, she suspected it was simply a case of walking pneumonia.
“We’re so busy in this day and age that we don’t even stop to listen to our bodies,” says Frida. “There was no history of lung cancer in my family. No cancer at all, even, so it didn’t cross my mind.”
As her cough worsened and she developed a low-grade fever, Frida became worried. “The last month before I got checked, I had a constant cough, began getting dizzy occasionally, and I also started getting a pain on the left side of my ribs and shoulder,” she says.
She eventually became so ill that she was bedbound and missed several days of work. That’s when Frida decided to visit an urgent care facility, where a chest X-ray found a lump in her lung and a CT scan confirmed a mass.
A few days later, a biopsy determined stage 2 lung cancer.
“I was lucky we found it when we did, because my doctor told me that it had been growing in my body for a long time — at least five years,” says Frida.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among both men and women, accounting for 1 in 4 cancer deaths in the United States. But it is rare in younger people — two-thirds of people who face lung cancer are over 65, and just 2 percent are below the age of 45.
Frida’s tumor was a carcinoid tumor, the least common form of lung cancer (only about 1 to 2 percent of lung cancers are carcinoid). This type of tumor tends to grow more slowly than other forms of the disease. When it was discovered, it was only 5 centimeters by 5 centimeters in size.
Due to its size, her doctor was also surprised she didn’t experience more symptoms. “He asked if I had been sweating, and I had been a lot at night, but I assumed it was from being 40 pounds overweight or from being sick with a fever. I hadn’t thought anything beyond that,” says Frida.
Within a month of discovering the cancer, Frida was on the operating table. Her physician removed the lower part of her left lung and the entire mass was successfully taken out. She didn’t have to go through chemotherapy. Today, she has been cancer-free for a year and a half.
“It’s amazing, because I thought I was going to die after hearing cancer, especially lung cancer. I didn’t know anything about it. It was such a horrible feeling,” Frida recalls.
Before her surgery, Frida’s lung was working at just 50 percent of its capacity. Today, it is at 75 percent capacity. “I don’t really feel a difference, unless I do a lot of physical activity,” she says, though she occasionally experiences some minor pain in her ribs, which needed to be broken in order for the surgeon to access the mass. “If I take deep breaths, sometimes I feel a little pain,” she explains.
Still, Frida says she is thankful that her recovery went relatively smoothly. “I went from thinking the worst could happen to having a great recovery,” she says.
A new perspective and drive to help others
Now 30 years old, Frida says lung cancer has given her new perspective. “Everything changes. I notice sunrises more and appreciate my family more. I look at my life pre-cancer and think about how I worked so hard and didn’t stop to think about the things that really matter,” she says.
Spreading awareness about lung cancer is one new matter she takes to heart as a Lung Force Hero.
“It’s a wonderful experience to be able to inspire others by sharing my story and to raise funds by participating in a walk,” she says. “Best of all, [as a Lung Force Hero] I hope to show people they’re not alone when facing this disease. In fact, lung cancer is one of the number one killers of women.”
Frida also aims to help people as a medical professional one day. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she was studying biology at a community college.
“I originally considered physical therapy because I didn’t think I would ever be able to afford medical school. But I had a counselor ask me: if I had all the money in the world, what would I want to do?” she recalls. “And that’s when I realized, I want to be a doctor.”
When she became ill, Frida wondered if her dream would ever come true. “But after surviving lung cancer, I got the drive and determination to finish school and keep my eyes on the goal,” she says.
Frida hopes to complete her undergraduate degree next year, and then begin medical school. She believes that having survived cancer will allow her to bring a unique perspective — and compassion — to her patients, as well as provide insight to other medical professionals she may work with.
“I’m not sure which specialty I’d like to pursue, but I will explore going into cancer or cancer research,” she says.
“After all, I have experienced it firsthand — not many doctors can say that.”