BY FREDA MIKLIN
Longtime Greenwood Village resident Heidi Nafman-Onda, a 17-year fitness instructor and lifelong health enthusiast, was 55 years old and right at 60 minutes exercising on a Stairmaster when she got a phone call telling her that a test for an unrelated condition had resulted in an incidental finding that she had stage 3A lung cancer. She had never smoked and had no cough or other symptoms usually associated with lung cancer. But there was a mass in the upper lobe of her left lung that lit up when she got a follow-up pet scan. A biopsy soon disclosed inoperable lymph nodes. Her doctor recommended that she get her affairs in order.
Fortunately, Heidi was referred to an oncologist who told her about an immunotherapy treatment that she could get after receiving chemotherapy and radiation. Immunotherapy, Heidi told The Villager, is a method of teaching the immune system how to fight cancer cells. Although she doesn’t talk about being in remission, she is doing well and shared that, “There was no evidence of cancer on my last scan in May.”
Heidi is traveling around the country to bring attention to The White Ribbon Project that she began to raise awareness about lung cancer in non-smokers, something to which she is devoting her immense energy. This disease is not well understood by many people because smoking accounts for the majority of lung cancer deaths. Heidi told us, “Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer around the world and the number one cancer killer in the United States. It kills more people than colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined and it has done so for decades. Even though it has the highest mortality rate,” she continued, “it is the least funded of all cancers.” She wants people to know, “Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. Research matters. Most importantly, there is hope.”
The American Cancer Society (ACS) agrees that there is hope, saying, “Long-term declines in mortality for the four leading cancers have halted for prostate cancer and slowed for breast and colorectal cancers, but accelerated for lung cancer, which accounted for almost one-half of the total mortality decline from 2014 to 2018.” Still, “Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States… Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, followed by breast cancer (among women) and prostate cancer (among men). More people in the United States die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. This is true for both men and women.” ACS predicts that 22 percent of all cancer deaths in 2021 in both men and women will be from lung cancer. Figures show that it will claim twice as many men as will prostate cancer and 47 percent more women then will breast cancer.
Even when she was getting chemotherapy and radiation, Heidi did well. “I listened to everything the doctors and nurses told me to do. I never experienced nausea or vomiting and I didn’t lose my hair.” She feels like the immunotherapy treatment, made by AstraZeneca, has been extremely helpful in getting her to where she is today. Heidi told The Villager that she feels lucky that her cancer was caught at stage three, since most present at stage four. She believes it is an epidemic in young women right now who typically present with an allergic-type cough and are treated with allergy medicine before the right diagnosis is finally made. Heidi’s husband, Pierre Onda, M.D., medical director of employer services and product development at Kaiser Permanente, Colorado has taught many other primary care practitioners how to recognize the signs of silent lung cancer.
Heidi also wants people to know that radon exposures is the number leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and people who haven’t been continuously exposed to secondhand smoke. In her case, it was brought to her attention by her son, who is an environmental engineer. He suggested they check the radon level in the Greenwood Village home they have lived in for over 20 years. When they did, they found it was 8 pCi/L. Any radon level of 4 pCi/L or above should be immediately mitigated. Heidi’s family mitigated immediately, but she believes it was the cause of her cancer. She recommends that everyone test the radon levels in their home annually with a kit that she told us can be found in a hardware store. She also hopes more research will be done to gain an understanding of the connection between radon gas and lung cancer.
Heidi believes lung cancer patients can receive great emotional support by reaching out to an organization called Notes of Encouragement. It is a place through which people who have lung cancer can receive notes from survivors “with tips about how to get through this, how to find support groups,” she shared.
Heidi Nafman-Onda and her husband Dr. Pierre Onda have three adult children who attended public school in the Cherry Creek School District.