LUNG FORCE Hero Aaron Hawkins is no stranger to overcoming the odds.

When he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 20 years ago, he was determined to find a way to make a difference and make the most of his situation. “Though my initial thought was ‘what am I going to do!’ I came to the realization that my treatment was going to be guided by my approach. I am a high energy guy and I just thought there must be better ways to use my energy than feeling sorry for myself,” he said.

Within six months he had gotten involved in philanthropy efforts and run his first marathon. This began his love of long-distance running and allowed him to raise money for MS research. “I realized that getting in shape and ridding myself of destructive vices was going to make me a better husband and father.”

Flash forward to Halloween 2019, when Aaron’s doctor told him he had lung cancer, he knew exactly what he needed to do. “I thought, ‘well that is not good news,’ but I knew I needed to take it in stride. So, I picked up the phone to see how I could get involved with the American Lung Association of Tennessee,” Aaron recalls.

He was told that the biggest fundraiser of the year, the Fight for Air Climb, was happening that weekend. Without skipping a beat, Aaron signed up and vowed to be one of the top fundraisers, even though he had barely a week to prep. “I am a marathon runner, so I thought it would be easy. But I wasn’t prepared to go up and down all those steps. Three hours and 24 minutes later I finally finished, and I was exhausted,” he said.

His determination not only in the race, but to become one of the top fundraisers in such a short period of time, didn’t go unnoticed. He was asked to join the Lung Association’s local board, which he immediately accepted.

Defeating Cancer, In and Out of Surgery

After the race, Aaron had surgery to remove the superior lobe of his left lung. Thankfully, the surgery went well, and he has been cancer-free ever since. “I was so lucky to have caught it early. I only had cancer for 12 days thanks to my amazing medical team,” he said. “Early detection is so important because it allowed me to make a full recovery.”

Despite his recovering from surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept him housebound, Aaron saw no reason to slow down his lung cancer advocacy efforts. He encouraged his friends to do the virtual vertical mile and was proud to have around 40 people support the cause through his efforts. “I am still a long-distance runner, so I joke that I use up more air in Tennessee than most people and it is so important that it is as clean as possible. When you are missing a good portion of one of your lungs, you understand that every breath is something to be cherished.”

He also continued to nurture his relationship with the local board and was asked to speak to members of Congress during the virtual LUNG FORCE Advocacy Day. A passionate advocate, Aaron routinely engages with Tennessee’s state lawmakers, as well.

Aaron’s Words of Wisdom

Aaron is the first to say how lucky he was to have avoided chemotherapy and radiation, but he knows other patients with stage four lung cancer who agree that a positive spin on the situation can make a huge difference. That is why he is so enthusiastic about events. He has found the Climbs and other Lung Association projects to be a great place to talk to others who understand his situation and, just as important, to offer support. “I had a sherpa through my lung cancer journey, and it made all the difference. It helped me be patient and ask the right questions. And it was someone to lean on when I had to have difficult conversations with loved ones,” he said.

This year, Aaron was named the chairman of Tennessee’s Fight For Air Climb and he has no intention of slowing down. “I have created such great relationships with people at the Lung Association and I believe so strongly in what they are trying to do. So, I have told them, whatever you need from me, I will try to help you out,” Aaron said. In addition to his climbing efforts, Aaron plans to once again be involved in LUNG FORCE Advocacy Day, this time in-person in Washington D.C.

“My message to people is, listen, this is a serious diagnosis but it by no means has to be a death sentence. I have lived more of a life in the last 20 years, and specifically the last three years since my lung surgery than I had prior. So, it’s not an end point, it’s just a point,” he said, “I am so much more than a cancer diagnosis and it is not what people are going to remember about me after I am gone.”

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