Linnea Duff has advanced lung cancer, but she remains grateful for the care she has received at Mass General, including targeted cancer therapies.

When Linnea Duff was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer nine years ago at the age of 45, she was shocked. “Prior to my diagnosis, I thought that the only people who needed to worry about lung cancer were smokers,” she explains. “And I had never smoked in my life.”

Linnea’s primary care doctor sent her to a local hospital. But it immediately became clear that Linnea needed more specialized care. A close friend recommended she transfer to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Linnea Duff (right) with her two sons, August (left) and Peter (middle)
Linnea Duff (right) with her two sons, August (left) and Peter (middle)

The mother of three didn’t think she would make it to see her children grow up, or to tell her story today. “I did a lot of research,” recalls Linnea. “Survival statistics are worse for lung cancer than for almost any other cancer. At the time, four out of five people diagnosed with lung cancer died within 5 years. I was beyond terrified.”

Linnea underwent an invasive surgery to remove most of her left lung. This was followed by extensive chemotherapy and drug therapy at the Mass General Cancer Center. This proved to be ineffective, and her cancer continued to spread to both of her lungs. In 2008, her cancer reached the most advanced stage. Linnea was terminally ill, and she felt completely hopeless.

“Survival statistics are worse for lung cancer than for almost any other cancer,” says Linnea. “I was beyond terrified.”

Finding Hope

Just when Linnea feared she was out of options, the cancer specialists at Mass General offered her hope. She learned that specialized therapies were being developed in the laboratory. Depending on a patient’s genetic makeup, certain targeted cancer therapies can be effective in fighting advanced cancers. Linnea was tested for a newly-discovered genetic mutation. When Linnea tested positive for it, she was overwhelmed with hope.

Linnea Duff and her daughter, Jemesii
Linnea Duff and her daughter, Jemesii

Almost immediately, Linnea entered a clinical trial for a new drug that would target her genetic mutation, becoming the fourth person in the world to receive the therapy developed at Mass General. “Within days of starting the trial, I started to feel better,” recalls Linnea. Then, something amazing happened – her cancer slowly started to disappear. The drug was successful.

“Linnea’s results were phenomenal,” says her oncologist, Alice Shaw, MD, PhD. “Her cancer shrunk tremendously.”

Today, although she still has cancer, Linnea lives a healthy, full life. She enjoys spending time with her children and family, and frequently visits them across the country. Linnea is also an avid painter, photographer, vintage clothing collector, writer and an advocate for cancer patients. She describes herself as “terminally optimistic.”

Then, something amazing happened – her cancer slowly started to disappear. The drug was successful.

A Commitment to the Future

In her blog, outlivinglungcancer.com, Linnea chronicles her daily life, cancer treatment, travels and family. “I’ve been given the gift of more time on this earth and I want to use it as an opportunity,” says Linnea. “I blog because I want to educate people about cancer, offer insight into the patient experience and instill hope in fellow sufferers of this awful disease.”

Linnea Duff and her niece, Zola
Linnea Duff and her niece, Zola

In addition to encouraging her readers not to lose hope, she encourages them to stay grateful – to their families, friends and caregivers. In fact, Thanksgiving is Linnea’s favorite holiday because it is a day devoted to family and gratitude. Above all, Linnea is grateful to Dr. Shaw and her research on targeted cancer therapies. “Before coming to the Mass General Cancer Center, I didn’t have any options,” says Linnea. “Now I have choices. I have hope.”

In addition to caring for patients like Linnea, Dr. Shaw is working in the lab to develop new targeted cancer therapies. She is also studying how to treat cancers when they become resistant to specialized treatments. Recently, Dr. Shaw and her colleagues published a paper on a key development in targeted lung cancer therapy that improves health outcomes and decreases side effects. “Dr. Shaw is not only brilliant, she’s incredibly caring,” says Linnea. “Had I not met her, I would not be here today.”

Recently, Linnea rented some studio space near her home in Lowell, Mass. There, she plans to paint and set up shop. She will be selling her photographs and paintings, along with vintage clothing she has collected over the years. She plans to call her store “The House of Redemption – Second Chance Clothing” in honor of the second chance she has been given. “Opening the store is a commitment to my future,” says Linnea with a smile. “I hope to be an old lady someday.”