Beckie Geary: A Lung Cancer Survivor's Story

(November 16, 2012)

Beckie GearyIt’s hard to imagine that, only decades ago, smoking was considered the norm. Smoking was glamorous. Movie stars appeared in cigarette advertisements. Even doctors endorsed a variety of cigarette brands. It’s been said that back then everyone smoked – not just movie stars but also doctors, teachers, parents, and even children. Rebecca “Beckie” Geary knows firsthand what it is like to grow up around cigarettes, and the potentially deadly consequences that can arise from it.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month – a reminder to all of the extreme dangers of cigarette use. Beckie grew up in a house where everybody smoked. She and her siblings used to make a game out of what they called the “cloud of smoke” that would pollute their house daily. After picking up her first cigarette at 11- years old, it took nearly 10 years of intermittent smoking to finally quit.

“I didn’t like the way [smoking] ran my life,” said Beckie, reflecting on her reasons for smoking cessation.

After being smoke-free for nearly 30 years, Beckie found herself in the middle of several life-changing events. In the fall of 2007, while preparing to enter nursing school and at the same time beginning a divorce, Beckie was told by her physician that she had lung cancer.

The diagnosis came as a result of a trip to the emergency room earlier in the year. Beckie had a habit of studying hunched over her books, adding stress to her shoulders and causing her to lose feeling in her face. Thinking she was having a stroke, she called an ambulance and was rushed in to a nearby hospital where it was discovered she was suffering from a pinched nerve. While she was in the hospital, a chest x-ray was performed. Physicians noticed something in the x-ray and contacted Beckie for further examination. After additional tests were conducted, Beckie was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Beckie had been in the middle of picking up pizza for her daughter and her grandchildren when she was called about her diagnosis. Later, she and her daughter sat on the couch in shock, a sensation that she can only be described as feeling “numb.”

“I was scared, first and foremost,” Beckie later recalled.

One month after her diagnosis, her entire left lung was removed. At the time, doctors were 99 percent certain they had removed all of the cancer. Shortly following her release from the hospital, she began chemotherapy, which sickened her for many months. Because Beckie lived above a chain-smoker in her apartment building, she had no choice but to move after her surgery. Fortunately, she had the support of church friends who gave her shelter and aided in her recovery. In total, about 16 people took turns helping at various times.

“I was very drugged and extremely sick,” she remembers. “It was wonderful to have all of those people come together to help me.”

Her determination, support, and most importantly her faith, kept her moving forward.

“I thank God for all of the support I had during that most difficult time in my life,” she said. “It was truly a valley, but God showed himself to me through the loving care of the people He sent."

Following her recovery, Beckie began speaking out against tobacco on her community college campus and in public housing. Through her advocacy efforts, Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon went smoke-free in 2010, and was among the first of Oregon’s community colleges to ban smoking on campus.

Beckie went on to receive her Associate’s degree and moved across the country from Oregon to Virginia. She was able to go on to nursing school, and in 2012 graduated with her Bachelor’s degree in nursing. Currently she lives in Maryland and is on course to start her Master’s program in Health Policy in nursing beginning in 2013.

To date, Beckie has been cancer free for nearly five years. While her story is one of support, determination, and survival, many are not as fortunate as Beckie. Lung cancer is estimated to be responsible for nearly 160,000 deaths annually in the United States. Smoking is responsible for approximately 80-90% of all lung cancer cases. Men who smoke are 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer than those who never smoked. Women are 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer over women who have never smoked.

Beckie’s story serves as a reminder about the dangers of cigarette use. She not only faced her disease with dignity and determination, but she has also made a difference through her advocacy efforts and by sharing her story.

If you or someone you know is facing lung cancer, visit the American Lung Association’s new lung cancer support site at www.MyLungCancerSupport.org. There you can find tools and information to help you get the support you need to face lung cancer, from day one.