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Scan for pickleball injury leads to surprise lung cancer diagnosis

She thought she was doing everything right for her health, but a silent tumor was lurking in her lung — until that fateful pickleball game.
Jean Linn receives chemotherapy as part of her treatment for lung cancer.
Jean Linn receives chemotherapy as part of her treatment for lung cancer.Courtesy Jean Linn
/ Source: TODAY

Jean Linn didn’t feel lucky when she took a hard tumble during a pickleball game, but a startling discovery at urgent care the next day changed everything.

“If I hadn’t fallen, I still wouldn’t know I had cancer,” Linn, 72, who lives in Pittsburgh, told TODAY.

Lung cancer, to be precise. She’s not a smoker, doesn’t live with one, has no family history of the disease and has never had any symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath. So Linn had no reason to get her ribcage checked — until she lunged at the ball during that match last summer and fell so hard on her side that she couldn’t breathe.

Worried that she broke her ribs, Linn sought medical help, but when the urgent care doctor examined her X-ray, he noticed something else.

“The good news is no breaks, no fractures,” Linn remembered him saying. “But how long have you had this 1-inch spot in your lung?”

The discovery was immediately concerning: “I’ve been around long enough to know that if something is growing in my body that’s not supposed to be there, my first thought is yeah, it’s cancer,” she said.

Like many other patients, Linn had no reason to ask for a check of her lungs. She had no symptoms and no family history of the disease.
Like many other patients, Linn had no reason to ask for a check of her lungs. She had no symptoms and no family history of the disease.Courtesy Jean Linn

The diagnosis roller coaster began: After the X-ray, Linn received a CT scan, which showed the spot in her right lung had all the markers for a cancerous tumor.

Last August, she underwent a robotic-assisted bronchoscopy at UPMC Passavant. The tissue gathered during that biopsy confirmed Linn had non-small cell lung cancer — the more common type of the disease, accounting for 80-85% of cases.

More people die from lung cancer than from any other type of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. More than 130,000 Americans will die from it this year, and more than 236,000 new cases will be diagnosed, the American Cancer Society estimated.

Smoking causes most cases of the disease, but other risk factors include older age, having a family history of lung cancer, exposure to environmental risk factors and having an HIV infection.

Early-stage lung cancer that hasn’t spread often causes no symptoms. There’s no good way to scan for it early so for now, the best advice is to get a low-dose CT scan every year if you have a history of heavy smoking and are 50 or older.

Sometimes, lung cancer strikes people with no known risk factors for the disease. Like many other patients, Linn had no reason to ask for a check of her lungs. Another woman found out she had a lung tumor when she went in for a COVID-19 test.

“I try to take care of my health, so I have my colonoscopies when scheduled, I go for my mammograms, I see the dermatologist once to twice a year. I see the dentist twice a year,” Linn noted.

“I get all my vaccinations. Shingrix (for shingles), pneumonia, COVID — I do all that stuff, but never did I think I should be getting a chest X-ray.”

Doctors removed almost half of her right lung during surgery in October. The tumor was stage 2B, which means it hadn’t spread to distant parts of the body. Linn started chemotherapy soon after and hopes her last infusion was this month. She will have another CT scan in March and will likely receive targeted therapy — drugs that interrupt the growth and function of cancer cells — as part of her treatment.

Improved lung cancer survival has played a particularly significant role in the decline of cancer death rates since the early 1990s, according to the American Cancer Society.

Linn hasn’t played pickleball since that fateful fall last summer, but she feels lucky the tumble lead to the discovery of the silent tumor.

“The earlier they catch it, (the more) you stand a fighting chance,” she said.