A little girl huddled silently in the pitch-black shop. She knew the others were with her. It was dark outside, and the big metal roll down door was closed, but no one had time to lock it in the rush to escape the soldiers. They could hear the men breaking into other hiding places, one-by-one. They heard screams of the other women and children as they were shot, and the wailing of the men as they were forced to watch their families slaughtered. The mother began quietly crying. The little girl said, “Mama, don’t cry. When the soldiers find us, I have a plan. I’m going to run as fast as I can so when they shoot me, I won’t see the bullets, and then I won’t be scared when they hit me.” 

My mother was that little girl. I’m here to write this story because those soldiers didn’t roll up the door. I relate this to you not to garner sympathy, but to give you a glimpse into what made mama tick. 

“I’m going to run as fast as I can, and then I won’t be scared when they hit me.” 

Fast forward to 2010. Mom was crawling out from the depths of depression after back-to-back losses of her only sister, followed by the soul-crushing death of her husband of 53 years, my father. With tremendous effort on our family’s part, we had held mom’s head above water for two solid years. One day, she laughed. Another day, she sang. Eventually, mom began to walk among the living again. 

As life would have it, this relatively happy period would be short-lived.  On June 6, 2012, mom was diagnosed with advanced, inoperable lung cancer. She moved in with my family, and began aggressive treatment: thirty days of radiation over six weeks, coupled with five cycles of chemo every three weeks. It was a brutal regimen, but mom wanted to live. 

She experienced just about every possible treatment toxicity and side effect.  The two of us spent weeks in the hospital. We “celebrated” her birthday there. It was touch and go for a time, but mom prevailed. Her doctors were delighted with her recovery. Mom’s CT, PET and brain scans were clean: no evidence of disease. She had dodged another bullet, or so we thought.

Then it happened. Mom was sleeping too much. Her oxygen saturation was low, so she went back to the hospital. Over the course of three weeks, mom was tested, cultured, biopsied, yet no answers emerged. Eventually, she couldn’t get enough oxygen to move. Since she was clearly dying, a last-ditch VATS biopsy of her lung was performed. Post surgery, we were told her lung was black, stiff and basically shot to hell. The pathology report called it Diffuse Alveolar Damage. It was incompatible with life. Game over.

Mom was taken off the ventilator the next day. Even though we were told death would likely come in a few minutes, mom held on for almost two hours. I held her hand, listened to her breathing slow, felt her pulse weaken. Mama died, surrounded by all her children and grandchildren, on March 28, 2013, at 11:14 a.m., less than ten months after she was diagnosed. We buried her the following day, next to my father.

Despite overwhelming grief, I was able to take away two positives from this gut-wrenching experience. Mama and I often butted heads, probably because we were so alike. I often took comfort and refuge in being a daddy’s girl instead of working on my relationship with her. When I became mom’s full-time caretaker, advocate and hospital sleepover buddy, we developed a closeness that will stay with me all my days. I am most grateful for that. 

Mom’s lung cancer diagnosis also forced me to learn about a disease that, frankly, I didn’t want to think about.  I mean, who would? Well, I learned we all have to give this disease the attention it deserves because chances are very good that lung cancer will touch each and every one of our lives.  It’s estimated that one in fourteen Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer. Most will be non-smokers at the time of diagnosis. In fact, 15-20% are defined as never-smokers. So, we can’t just sit back and think it won’t happen to us. It can, and does happen to an American every 2½ minutes. 

It gets worse. Lung cancer has a dismal 5-year survival rate of less than 16% because the disease is usually diagnosed at an advanced, metastatic stage. Sadly, my mother’s experience isn’t all that unusual. The majority of lung cancer patients don’t survive even a year post diagnosis.

These dreadful statistics are compounded by the reality that lung cancer receives the least federal research funding, by far, of the major cancers, despite the fact that it kills more people than breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers combined, giving it the dubious distinction of being the number one cancer killer. In the United States, approximately 160,000 people die of lung cancer each year. Worldwide, lung cancer kills 1.5 million people yearly, with nearly a third of those deaths not smoking-related in any way. I believe that the inaccurate portrayal of lung cancer as a smokers-only disease is a big reason for these research funding and survival disparities. In the case of lung cancer, unlike most other diseases, many somehow feel qualified to sit as judge and jury. Morally, this is a very slippery slope, one that will eventually harm us all.

There is a silver lining, though. Even with inadequate attention and lack of funding, there have been great strides made in lung cancer research in the past decade, much of it focusing on genetic mutations. New, targeted therapies are allowing some lung cancer patients to live much longer, with good quality of life, than ever previously imagined. 

“I’m going to run as fast as I can, and then I won’t be scared when they hit me.” 

When my mother was diagnosed, I came to a realization. Mama didn’t run from her disease, like she wanted to run as a child from the soldiers’ bullets. She faced advanced lung cancer head on, enduring terrible, toxic treatments in order to have the chance to live.  In mom’s honor and memory, I’ve made a conscious decision not to run either. I invite you to join me. Learn more about lung cancer. Speak out about its survival and research funding disparities. Don’t participate in the “blame game” stigma surrounding the disease. Become an advocate for this largely neglected cancer. Do something. Act. 

  1. Bob Radinsky says:

    My wife, Beth, was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in September 2012. In spite of a EGFR mutation and the opportunity to be treated with Tarceva, a targeted therapy with much promise of prolonging her life, Beth passed away in September 2013. She was a non-smoker and lived a much healthier life style than me. I advocate for finding a cure, early detection, changing the perception, and assisting other victims thru an organization called Lung Cancer Connection. If we can explore ways to work together please contact me at your convenience.

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