'Super healthy' 30-year-old's hoarse voice and back pain was lung cancer

Lung cancer is “exceedingly rare” in people under 35, so it didn't even cross Jordan Turko's mind as he noticed two seemingly unrelated symptoms.

Jordan Turko vowed to maintain an “unbreakable positive attitude” during his treatment.Courtesy Jordan Turko

Just as 2022 began, Jordan Turko noticed he had a hoarse voice and pain in his back.

But as a “super healthy” 30-year-old frequent flier and hot yoga fan who exercised six days a week, he wasn’t alarmed at all. He blamed both symptoms on a suspected case of COVID-19 over the holidays when lots of people contracted the omicron variant.

Still, he noticed the hoarse voice didn’t go away for weeks. The back pain also lingered and had moved into his lower back, pelvis and legs. He could feel the ache deep in his bones.

When Turko decided to visit a walk-in clinic to see a doctor at the end of February, it eventually led to a chest X-ray, CT scan, biopsy and bronchoscopy.

It was finally April when he received the stunning diagnosis: stage 4 lung cancer, with a 4-inch tumor wrapped around his pulmonary artery and tumors growing all along his spine. They had also spread to the surrounding lymph nodes, his liver, and pelvic and leg bones.

Before getting the news, lung cancer didn't even cross Turko's mind.

“Who would have guessed that? Even now, in hindsight, who would be like, ‘Oh, your back is in pain. You have lung cancer,’” Turko, an entrepreneur who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, told TODAY.

“(Doctors) think the tumor actually started in January, which is crazy to think it grew to 4 inches in a couple months and spread throughout the entire body.”

Hoarse voice as symptom of lung cancer

Turko said he had “literally zero” health problems before his diagnosis and didn’t even know how to get a prescription filled. Two of his great uncles had lung cancer, but they were both diagnosed in their 70s after a lifetime of heavy smoking. Turko smoked a little bit when he was younger, but doctors told him that was unrelated to this aggressive cancer, he said.

It’s not uncommon to have a hoarse voice as a symptom of lung cancer, said Dr. MeiLan Han, a pulmonologist at the University of Michigan Health System and author of “Breathing Lessons: A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health.”

“This is due to the cancer impinging on or invading the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which actually travels down into the chest cavity, under the arch of the aorta and back to the larynx,” Han, who is not treating Turko, but commented in general, told TODAY.

A growing tumor can lead to paralysis or weakness of that nerve. Turko said his left vocal cord was paralyzed, affecting his voice.

Most people diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older, according to the American Cancer Society. Han pointed to a study that found it’s “exceedingly rare” for younger adults to have it, with about 1.4% of lung cancers occurring in people under 35.

Turko has non-small cell lung cancer, a type that accounts for up to 85% of lung cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

Of those patients, 4% have ALK positive lung cancer — an error in a specific gene — which affects younger people who also tend not to have a smoking history, the American Lung Association noted. Biomarker tests confirmed Turko was ALK positive, which meant he qualified for targeted drug therapy.

'Be vigilant with your health'

After initially feeling overwhelmed, Turko vowed to maintain an “unbreakable positive attitude.”

“I felt the entire time that I am going to live, that I’m going to survive — from the moment I was diagnosed, I felt that way,” he said.

“It’s so easy to get lost in the despair of it. It’s OK to let your emotions roll over you, and I certainly did. I certainly had those feelings, too. But if you stay there, you’re more likely to die. If you can find your way out of that… you’re giving yourself the best chance possible.”

"You have to choose whether you’re the type of person who believes you’re going to live a long time or you’re not," Turko said. "I'm going to guess the people that do are the ones who believe that they do, and so I just made that choice." Courtesy Jordan Turko

Doctors worried the tumors in his spine could paralyze him, so Turko underwent emergency radiation treatment in late April to push the cancer back. He’s now receiving the targeted drug therapy in pill form and hoping his body will respond well.

Turko was grateful for all the strangers who reached out to him after he wrote about this diagnosis on social media and urged others to pay attention to their body.

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate, including against young people. Be vigilant with your health,” he said.