He said, ‘Keep a steady pace and focus on your breathing,’ the night before the Peachtree Road Race. I’d always wanted to run it, and this was my first time. I called him the night before because I was so excited. Before we hung up, he told me to run the long stretches and walk up the steep hills. My father was a natural leader and problem solver, so he always offered the advice I needed – even if I didn’t ask.
Atlanta’s a pretty hilly city and the 10K definitely contained a few. I’ve driven down that strip of Peachtree Street many times, but I had never noticed. During the run, I found his advice helpful and finished in less than 66 minutes which was my target time. (Secret’s out…I’m a pretty slow runner .)
After the run, I went to visit him and he surprised me by cooking a Fourth of July dinner for us. My mother usually cooked, but she was in Maryland visiting family with my older sister, Nikki, and younger brother, AJ. The food was great and I enjoyed spending that summer holiday with him. I have countless memories of my father, but this one epitomizes his role in my life: he gave direction, warned me of challenges and offered solutions, and was always present to celebrate my accomplishments.
This was in 2007 around the time when my memories became a bit fuzzy.
Two months later, things were different. At the time, I couldn’t fully articulate how they’d changed. My father wasn’t playing tennis on the weekends nor working out to keep fit anymore. He stopped working on the home improvement projects around the house that he’d just recently begun. He was extremely tired most of the time. He wasn’t used to being so inactive and we weren’t accustomed to seeing him ill.
He began visiting a stream of doctors. One doctor discovered he was anemic and thought a prescription would fix things. A colonoscopy revealed polyps they later found weren’t cancerous. This just the beginning, we were on a mission to solve this problem and collecting any clues we could pick up along the way.
It was a fall filled with tests.
By November, my father was tired of doctors and tests. He was over six feet tall and typically weighed about 220lbs, but his weight was steadily declining. His complexion was a beautiful brown tone, one I used to try to sun bathe to achieve, but it turned a yellowish tint. None of us knew what to do. My mother, siblings and I were used to him giving us the next directive, but he seemed out of ideas, too.
One day in December, we went to the emergency room. After another series of tests, we learned that my father had lung cancer. His doctor showed us the x-ray of the tumor on his left lung and explained how it couldn’t be removed because of it’s proximity to the arteries the lung shared with his heart. We listened to the treatment options and went from there.
It was a cold start to a long winter.
My father was a smoker for years and his family has a history of lung disease. During his series of tests, I remember the strength of his lungs being tested with an apparatus that you blow into, but this x-ray was the first test to reveal the cancer. We all wondered why the prior testing didn’t solve this for us, but time was moving too quickly to worry about the past or harp on what ifs.
I wanted to learn about lung cancer so I could help more. Typically, the more I educate myself on something, the more I understand. With lung cancer, it was the opposite. The statistics and facts surrounding the disease in 2007 left me shocked and stunned. I learned that it’s America’s leading cancer killer, yet it’s highly underfunded. It kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer; I never would have guessed this. In most cases, lung cancer is diagnosed too late so those affected have a low survival rate.
Initially, it didn’t make sense, but, when you really think about it, it actually does. If lung cancer kills more Americans than any other cancer and gets a small fraction of national cancer research funds, then the medical community will not be equipped with the tools needed to early diagnose the disease. If awareness is low, then people won’t be cognizant of what they’re up against – my family definitely wasn’t. Without the proper research to support treatment options and finding a cure, patients with aggressive cases won’t be likely to succeed.
The fall may have been fuzzy, but winter was pretty clear. My memories were clear, too. My father maintained his role as the source of strength for my family and fought a tough battle. He died a couple of weeks before spring and what would have been his 53rd birthday.
Lung cancer kills, but loss doesn’t have to be everyone’s story.
I wanted to find a way to honor my father’s memory, but I also wanted to find a way to help other families affected by this disease. It was difficult to navigate my way into the lung cancer community; I couldn’t find any events or contacts in Atlanta. I didn’t know where to start. In April, I drove to Athens to run in a lung cancer 5K. I just wanted to feel like I was doing something. One of my best friends, Anita, went with me, and it was special that she wanted to help.
I called around to different lung cancer foundations, and I found the LUNGevity Foundation. Their executive director at the time, Beth, was a true gift; the type of person who radiates sincerity and hugs you with her voice. She listened to my story about my father, understood why I wanted to help the cause, and, most importantly, she told me how I could help them make a difference.
In 2009, I became active as a national lung cancer advocate and started Atlanta’s Breathe Deep 5K with the help of family and friends. Each year we meet the families in Atlanta who have been affected by this disease and we fight it together. My heart always goes out to the daughters I meet who have lost their fathers to lung cancer – I always feel like I know how they feel which makes me want to help even more.
This year will be our forth annual event. Nikki took over as the coordinator when I moved to London last year and has done a wonderful job. We have a small group, including AJ and Anita, working together to make sure the event is successful. This group has been volunteering their time every summer and fall to plan this event and increase lung cancer awareness. We always set a fundraising goal and target a specific number of participants, but we truly believe our job is done if families leave knowing they are not alone in this fight and others leave knowing at least one new fact about lung cancer.
Every family has their own unique story, so we all experience the natural flow of the circle of life differently. Unfortunately, loved ones will pass away. My hope is that lung cancer won’t be the reason.
I believe we can stop it together.