Perry Lee always wanted to help others. It was a core value that was instilled in him by his philanthropic family. He knew he could make a difference at the Roseland Fire Department, where he and his best friend’s dad worked. So, 37 years ago he began his career as a volunteer firefighter, ultimately becoming an officer. “Once I decided to join, I never looked back. It's the best job in the world. I get to give back every day,” Perry said.
About 12 years ago, Perry took on another charitable endeavor after receiving sad news. His cousin Ann had been diagnosed with lung cancer and would be starting treatment immediately. The next day, by chance, a fellow firefighter asked Perry to join him in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb and Perry jumped in without hesitation. As his cousin began a lung cancer clinical trial that included chemo and radiation, Perry threw himself into training for the Fight for Air Climb that would take place at Madison Square Garden the following May. His enthusiasm inspired another cousin, Laura, to join him. Together with thousands of others, they climbed for Ann and every person facing the sting of lung cancer, the number one cancer killer. Ann celebrated with them at the after party, charming everyone who talked to her. “That was just Ann, physically she was small, but she had an amazing personality and presence, everyone knew and loved her.”
It would be the only climb event Ann would ever attend. The next year, two weeks before the event, she passed away surrounded by friends and family. Perry promised her that he would continue to honor her memory at the climb each year. “I told her, I am going to miss you, I will do this climb in your memory even if they have to drag me across the finish line. Two weeks later at the climb I walked out in front of the building and looked up at the sky and asked her to give me strength,” he remembered. And she did.
That year was Perry’s personal best time. But he recalls starting out too fast, bounding up the stairs with thoughts of Ann to motivate him. As the aches and pains set in and his lungs burned, gasping for air, he heard Ann in his head telling him to keep going. Around the 41st floor, when he began to feel like the pain was too much, he stumbled, only to be propelled forward by a push on his left shoulder. But when he looked around there was no one around him. It wasn’t until he crossed the finish line at the 55th floor that he was approached by a volunteer who swore that he hadn’t touched him, but he could see that someone had. “The kid was hysterical, he kept saying ‘I didn’t push you! I didn’t push you.’ Then I started to think, that was how Ann would always joke with me, she would jab my right shoulder,” Perry said. It was all the proof he needed that his cousin was with him.
Three years ago, nine years after his first Climb, Perry was also diagnosed with lung cancer. “My doctor found a tiny spot on my lung that he wanted to keep an eye on about 14 years ago, but I misunderstood when he said ‘I’ll see you next time.’ I thought he just meant when symptoms got worse, so I let about seven or eight years go by before getting a second look,” Perry recalled. Luckily, when he changed primary care doctors, they insisted that he get a follow-up CT scan. Despite very few symptoms and having successfully completed another stair climb just three days prior, they found that the spot had grown to be about three centimeters and was likely to spread. “No one could believe it. I didn’t fit the profile, they said I had the lungs of a 40-year-old,” Perry, who is almost 60, said. “After originally being in denial, I think Ann was with me because I did a 180. Three weeks after the diagnosis and after meeting with a specialist and surgical team, I had my operation.”
Since his diagnosis, Perry has made it his mission to share his story and encourage his fellow firefighters to stay healthy. “I took everything for granted, even breathing,” Perry said. “Now, I try to encourage all the guys at the fire department to get an early baseline, go get screened. Don’t tell me that you’re too young, you never know what may happen, your health isn’t a joke.”
Perry’s health scare hasn’t slowed him down. He still plans to participate in the Fight for Air Climb in honor of his cousin’s memory. “I have a second chance and I don't want to waste it. Yes, I am living with this, and I understand I'll never be cured, but I'm not letting this disease define me, I will define it.”
“I want everyone to learn from my mistake, don’t be complacent,” he said. “And don’t take the little things for granted — every breath you take, you have no idea.”
Whether you climb for a loved one, yourself, or one of the 541,000 Americans living today with lung cancer, you can make a difference.
To learn more about our Fight for Air Climbs around the country, visit Fight For Air Climbs online.
Blog last updated: September 7, 2021