RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — This year in North Carolina nearly 9,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s a disease many associate with smoking, but a growing number of lung cancer patients have never smoked.
A fitness trainer, Heidi Nafman-Onda spent much of her life focused on staying healthy and helping others get healthy. Then in 2018, a call from her doctor brought a diagnosis she never expected — lung cancer.
“I just could not believe what I was hearing,” Nafman-Onda recalled.
Nafman-Onda and her husband, Pierre Onda, a doctor, thought of lung cancer as an illness that affects people who smoke, and Heidi never has.
“Originally, I was given a very grim prognosis,” Nafman-Onda remembered.
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer kills more people in the U.S. than any other cancer.
Amy Cipau is the president and founder of Lung Cancer Initiative, in Raleigh. The nonprofit works to raise awareness about lung cancer, help those affected, and fund research.
“We are in such a good position in North Carolina with five major cancer centers — we fund research there and they support our efforts through education,” Cipau explained.
She says people with lung cancer often don’t receive the same response as other people with cancer.
“If you tell someone, ‘I have lung cancer,’ often the first question is ‘Did you smoke?’ or comment, ‘I didn’t know you smoked’,” Cipau said.
According to the Lung Cancer Initiative, 10 to 15 percent of people who develop lung cancer have never smoked.
“Like Heidi, younger nonsmoking women are a growing population getting lung cancer. Why is that? We know that radon is the second leading cause but we’re trying to get at that,” explained Cipau.
It’s one of the reasons she says research is so important. Helping find causes of lung cancer can lead to better prevention and screening techniques.
Nafman-Onda is working to make people aware that the illness can affect anyone. That’s why she started the White Ribbon Project to raise awareness that anyone can get lung cancer, and no one deserves it.
“Pierre took up woodworking when I was diagnosed,” she explained. “I just one day said, ‘I wish you could make me a big white ribbon door hanger out of wood because I knew it would last’,” she said. “I knew it would last longer than me, and that could stay up on the door and literally scream to the world (or) whoever walked by my house that I had lung cancer.”
For Pierre Onda, it was a way to make a difference.
“I couldn’t cure her lung cancer but I could make a white ribbon,” he recalled.
Now Pierre and Heidi, who shows no sign of cancer after chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy, are traveling around the country making white ribbons for the lung cancer community.
At an event in Apex, they joined survivors, families, representatives of Lung Cancer Initiative, UNC and Duke’s cancer centers, and former Panther Chris Draft, who lost his wife to lung cancer.
“Ribbons are going to let survivors know they’re not alone, let caregivers know we stand with them, let family members know that we recognize you,” said Draft.
Each ribbon is a symbol of support for someone affected by lung cancer
“That original ribbon was made with love and care from my husband,” said Nafman-Onda. “I want people to know that there’s love and care that goes into this, and we transfer that to you.”