One Nonsmoker’s Dignified Family Fight vs. Lung Cancer

Joan and Christine Kuerschner

Joan and Christine Kuerschner are plowing through an experience that no mother-daughter duo or family would ever want to share. But they are managing with quiet courage, grace and a determination to reach out to others.

“If I’m telling someone I don’t know that I have lung cancer, I always tell them right away that I never smoked,” says Joan, 52, who was diagnosed with non-small cell adenocarcinoma (a type of NSCLC) in 2010. “There’s a negative connotation, and most people are shocked. But I tell them because I want people to know that you can get lung cancer even if you’ve never smoked. If you realize something is wrong, get to your doctor.”

Although tobacco smoke causes the vast majority of lung cancer cases, Joan was never exposed to any secondhand smoke in a home or work situation. She also had no family history of lung cancer; her sister, however, will soon be treated to diagnose a spot found on her lung. “When I went in for the first surgery, we thought it would be a minor surgery, but instead when I woke up, they had removed the right upper lobe of my lung—major surgery, and I found out I had stage 3 lung cancer,” explains Joan, who lives in Janesville, WI, with her husband, Tom. She began an aggressive, 15-week course of chemotherapy; through a follow-up scan, her oncologist discovered a cancerous node outside her lung, near her esophagus, which was treated with daily radiation and weekly chometherapy into this year.

“It was such a shock when we found out my mom has lung cancer,” says Christine, 29, who has two younger brothers. “We were always close, but now we’ve really rallied around my mom and we’re even closer now. We keep trying to stay positive and spend as much time together as we can.” Christine’s time is also now spent raising awareness about lung cancer and funds for the American Lung Association in Wisconsin, where she serves on Milwaukee’s Fight for Air Climb planning committee. A marathoner who was looking for a new challenge, Christine had already registered for the 2010 event when her mother was diagnosed.

“It became more of a personal cause, and now I am on the committee and have a team of co-workers doing the climb this year,” she says. Her involvement is a source of great pride to her mother, who says, “I am so touched by what Christine is doing, trying to make a positive impact on the world.”

Joan, who has five siblings and many nieces and nephews, is determined to do all she can to fight the cancer and help her family. “My genetics counselor is sharing all of my information with my sister’s physician. We really hope we can learn something from it,” she says. “I’m lucky that we caught the cancer as early as we did, and I have a lot of confidence in my doctors. My decision is that I’m going to live and be there for my kids and my husband.”

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