Stage 4 cancer patient never smoked a day in his life
As he fights his own battle, Eric Mitchell is spreading the word about the rise in lung cancer among non-smokers.
Sporting his Superman shirt, Eric Mitchell posed for selfies with radiation therapists at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center.
The Jacksonville native has compiled a scrapbook with similar selfies of people he’s met throughout his journey with Stage 4 lung cancer. He’s titled his book “Stage 5” to signify, he said, the life he’ll lead after he beats cancer.
At 48, Mitchell, who goes by Mitch, is spreading the word that even people like him, who don’t smoke, can get lung cancer.
“It was devastating news,” said Mitchell, who with his wife of 27 years, Terra, has four daughters and five grandchildren. “But I told my family that I’m going to smile and do what I need to do. I’m not going to cry, not going to sulk or be mad or blame God.
“I’m going to get through it,” he added. “I’m ready for the fight. I’m going to be a cancer champion.”
A shocking diagnosis
A community activist in Jacksonville and a senior project coordinator for Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc., Mitchell was at work in June 2015 when he began experiencing vertigo and spitting up small traces of blood.
A few days later he started coughing and running a fever. He thought he was having a reaction to something he ate or just experiencing a bad cough. An x-ray revealed a mass on his lung and his throat. A CT scan confirmed he had lung and throat cancer.
Mitchell was shocked because he had never smoked and had not been around anyone who did. His primary care doctor referred him to Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. Further tests confirmed Stage 4 cancer—the most advanced level—because the cancer had spread to his upper bronchial tube and lymph nodes around the bronchial tube. He also had a spot on his spine.
Mitchell went through radiation on his spine followed by chemotherapy and more radiation.
Between 10 percent and 20 percent of lung cancers occur in non-smokers, said John Vu, MD, medical oncologist for Baptist MD Anderson.
Those numbers are rising, Dr. Vu said, though the reasons are unclear. Some lung cancers in non-smokers are caused by secondhand smoke and radon gas. Others may be caused by mutations or changes in a DNA sequence, for which targeted therapy is available.
Mitchell does not have a targetable driver mutation, so he was treated with standard IV chemotherapy and radiation, with Michael Olson, MD, radiation oncologist at Baptist MD Anderson. He also is going through immunotherapy treatments.
In addition to his family and friends, he’s received inspiration from other patients and team members at Baptist MD Anderson. He refers to his oncology nurse navigator, Carolyn Baggett, as his guardian angel.
“She’s been like the MVP (Most Valuable Player) of Baptist MD Anderson for me,” Mitchell said. “She talks to me and my wife every step of the way. She’s the voice after the doctor leaves to make sure I fully understand everything.”
His story has drawn attention nationally. Producer, songwriter and vocalist Paul Anthony, from the Grammy award winning R&B Hip Hop group Full Force, who has battled cancer, called to inspire him and asked Mitchell to be an ambassador for a cancer golf tournament.
Mitchell’s work in the Jacksonville and St. Augustine communities helps to educate people about the civil rights journey and how it shaped America today. He’s also helped restore two African American cemeteries in St. Augustine. National civil rights activists who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have visited and wished him well.
he’s now learning to live a new normal.
“I truly feel like I’m blessed,” said Mitchell, who praised his team of doctors, nurses and assistants “for saving my life.”
He urged other non-smokers to be alert about symptoms. “You need to go to the doctor and be specific about what you are experiencing. Just don’t rush out of the office,” Mitchell said.
Anyone who experiences coughing up blood, shortness of breath or unusual pain should contact their primary care physician, Dr. Vu cautioned.
“With current treatments available, patients are living longer than they used to,” he said. “Everyone is different and younger patients who are in good health have better chances.”
For more information on Baptist MD Anderson, go to baptistmdanderson.com.