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LUNG FORCE Heroes

Elizabeth T.

Dad started when he was only 12 years old, long before people knew smoking caused cancer. By his 30s he was smoking 3-4 packs a day of Pall Mall. We were little then and we actually liked the smell of tobacco on his clothes, because when he was around we'd be at play or story telling or enjoying his favorite music together.

He tried several times to stop, but those cigarette-free periods didn't last long, even though by our teens we'd started to hide his cigarettes and he only smoked outside. One day when he was only 50 he felt a crushing pain in his chest and down his left arm. Long story short, he underwent a 4-vessel coronary artery bypass. And he quit smoking!

He danced up a storm on my wedding day six months later. Smoke-free, we thought we were home free. But 15 years later, in 1996, the call came from an emergency room that he had suffered a seizure. It wasn't a stroke, but several metastases to his brain, and a lung mass. The following months of chemotherapy, radiation, and hospice brought the family together in unexpected and important ways. There was hope, but there was also a time when he said it was enough for him.

I wish his own grandchildren could have shared his stories, music, and dance long past his 68 years. Research, education, and public health policy can protect so many others from lung and other smoking-related cancers.

In 2008, 10 years after my dad died of stage IV non-small cell cancer, my aunt (his sister) discovered she had the same thing, metastatic to her brain and spine. Her symptoms were some weight loss, a dry cough that lingered for months, and then the onset of back pain. She herself had never smoked, although her husband had been a heavy smoker and had passed away of a smoking-related cancer.

In the decade between my dad's and my aunt's cancers, the detection and especially the management of lung cancer had progressed dramatically! Once diagnosed my aunt received targeted therapy, instead of the flamethrower chemotherapy and radiation therapy that my dad had received. My aunt's pain and cough improved, she didn't develop the radiation esophagitis that caused my dad so much discomfort and kept him from enjoying his meals with gusto.

She was out and about, traveled, enjoyed the family for many precious months. I recall her chuckles and joie de vivre at a dinner she hosted in appreciation of her second lease on life, and I marveled at the excellent quality of life these new medications gave her!

First published: February 20, 2018

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