AUSTIN - Dealing with cancer is something unexpected that can dramatically change someone's life. Now, one Austin woman is dealing with this disease in an uncommon way and lives with the knowledge that her fate possibly could have been prevented.
In 1994, Sarah Stirton moved from Hawaii to Texas with her husband.
"In September, it will be eight years," Stirton said.
Stirton, a nurse, works with pediatricians and has an 18-year-old son who just graduated from Anderson High School. Everything had been going well for her at work -- until this past holiday season.
"Right around the first of December of last year, just out of the blue one day in the restroom at work, I noticed a visible lymph node right above my left clavicle," Stirton said, pointing to the side of her neck. "I knew this wasn't normal, and I hadn't been recently ill. I knew this was likely not a good sign.
Stirton was already going to the doctor's office soon after noticing this irregularity, so she waited to show her doctor until that trip. When she went in, the doctor did a fine needle aspiration and used an ultrasound to try and figure out the issue. The doctor ended up taking 12 milliliters of fluid from the gland and told her to give it a couple of weeks. However, just a couple days later, Stirton found out she had cancer -- and it was malignant. She had stage IV cancer.
"I hope to beat the odds," Stirton said. "The five-year survival rate is only 15 percent. I've got my goal set on seeing my son graduate college, but it's really painful to try to think beyond that."
Stirton also went through a difficult period when doctors couldn't seem to find the source of the cancer.
"It took a long time -- a ridiculously long time in my mind -- to figure out where the primary cancer was," Stirton said. "They couldn't figure it out."
After a positron emission tomography (PET) scan in January, the doctors noticed spots in her lungs -- she had lung cancer. This confused Stirton, as she had never smoked and came from a family with no history of cancer. However, once she started talking to family and friends as well as doing some research, she discovered something.
"It's very clear the number one cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is radon exposure," Stirton said.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is, in fact, the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Overall, this radioactive gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer and is responsible for around 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year, according to the EPA.
With this new information, one of Stirton's friends ordered some test kits for her, as well as her other friends. Once she received the kit, Stirton and her family needed to close their house for about 96 hours with all windows and doors closed. Once the test kit remained in the house for that time period, she sealed up the envelope and sent it off to a lab in Carrollton, Texas.
"On February 2 around 10 p.m. on a Friday night, we came home from a dinner at a friend's house," Stirton said.
What she found shocked her family. The EPA considers the safe amount of radon to be below 4.0 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). Stirton's house had a level above 13.0.
"We literally threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed our toothbrushes and walked out the door in our pajamas at 10:00 at night," Stirton said. "I said, 'I'm not spending another night in this house.'"
The process of how radon gets into a person's home can be random. While there are certain areas and terrains that can cause higher levels of radon, any type of house can be impacted. The way a home was built -- along with the material used in doing so -- can play a part. If there are holes or crevices in the foundation of the house, this can allow certain radon gases to fill up a house.
David Burgos knows about these type of factors -- he is a real estate inspector but also a certificated radon mitigator from Elgin. He moved to Central Texas in 1977 and worked in the construction business. After creating his real estate business, he learned about radon gas from a coworker.
"The awareness is not quite there, but when people do start getting involved in the process, they have a ton of questions,' Burgos said.
To answer some of those questions and provide more resources, Burgos decided to create his own website -- texasradon.com.
"We are human beings that are very fragile," Burgos said. "We have children. We have animals. We have ourselves. Breathing in and sleeping in this environment, you don't ever want to be in a plume of this hazard to your health."
A part of the awareness issue is also the ability to find someone to fix the problem; Burgos is one of only five certified mitigators in all of Texas.
"If there's more people doing it and if there's a market, that would be helpful," Burgos said. "We need to get more mitigators involved. We need to get more people trained. At the regional level, there is not much support, and that's kind of what is going to actually have to change."
Along with the lack of mitigators, there also seems to be a lack of regulation at the state level. There are currently 19 states that have no state or local laws regulating radon; Texas is one of these states.
"I don't understand why it's not a part of regular home inspection," Stirton said. "I would really like to see the radon threat taken seriously in Texas."
Radon levels in Texas are considered generally low and that does play a factor in all of this. However, some resources seem to have been recently cut.
There used to be a state radon officer at the Texas Department of State Health Services. That person recently retired and no one was hired to fill the vacant position. Instead, resources were shifted towards a different radon program at Texas Tech University.
The EPA also had a grant in place from 1998 to 2013, which provided the State Health Services with free radon test kits to distribute to people. From 2008 to 2013, the department was able to hand out 18,218 radon test kits.
George Brozowski is the region health physicist at the EPA and had been running the radiation program for the past 10 years in Dallas. He has been involved in radon for about 30 years. He said while this grant program is no longer in place, the EPA is working on funding outreach to get the message out about radon.
"Testing is easy, testing is inexpensive," Brozowski said. "Test kits are available at many Home Improvement stores. More outreach is needed to get the word out and have people test their homes."
Chris Van Deusen is the director of media relations at the Texas Department of State Health Services. He said even though there is nowhere in Texas with a high risk of radon, it is not something to be taken lightly.
"It can vary pretty widely from across pretty much any localized area," Van Deusen said. "Even in the areas where there's not a higher risk, like in Austin, there's still a chance that an individual could be affected. People just need to understand the risk, and the risk is lung cancer."
Stirton now knows that is the risk and she hopes more people can realize this risk through her message.
"Nobody in Texas talks about it or mentions it," Stirton said. "People are very reluctant to consider it as a possibility, and I don't understand that. I hope more people can become aware."
To learn more about the programs the EPA is providing in connection to radon, you can click here.
Radon occurs naturally through the breakdown of uranium in water, soil or rock.
While radon can be found in well water or building materials, it's a much smaller risk compared to that associated with the gas escaping from the soil around your home.
The air pressure inside your home is typically lower than the pressure of the soil around your foundation, so the house acts almost like a vacuum, pulling radon in through small openings or cracks in the foundation.
Once the gas is trapped inside, the levels can grow. Though any house could be prone to radon gas getting inside, the level of concentration is dependent on ventilation. Opening doors or windows and using fans or clothes dryers all may affect the level of concentration indoors.
Because radon typically enters from the soil, the concentration is lower the higher up you go, so concentration levels will normally drop past the second floor.