Gail O

Gail O., IA

I’ve never smoked, so I knew I’d never get lung cancer.

But in the spring of 2010, I had a cough and a wheeze that only got worse. This wasn’t allergies. I was lucky to have symptoms and a family physician who recognized that my lungs “didn’t sound the same.”

Many tests confirmed our worst fears. “It’s cancer,” felt like a death sentence. My entire left lung was removed, and the tumor was staged 1B.

I had five weeks to recover before starting chemotherapy. During this time I discovered a short article titled, “Lung Cancer and Nonsmokers.”  This got my attention since the six physicians who knew I had lung cancer offered no explanation. The article was all about radon.

Iowa is ground zero for radon. We’ve lived here all our lives, but reading this article was my first encounter with the word. We soon learned that we had been living with a dangerous level for 18 years. The problem was mitigated in less than a day, and those six physicians learned that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer.

I’ve become an advocate for radon education and policy. Many of us are trying to persuade state legislators to protect our citizens by increasing awareness, requiring passive radon systems in new home construction, testing and mitigating our schools, and requiring a test before the final sale of a home.

I share what I have learned with all kinds of groups: neighborhood associations, garden clubs, respiratory therapy students, oncology nurses, etc. This winter, the Iowa Bankers Association agreed to urge all of their member banks to offer low-interest loans to those wishing to mitigate their home.

With nearly three years of excellent scans, I started to believe I was cancer-free. Then last August, I had pain in my left hip that wasn’t relieved by rest or physical therapy. The lung cancer had metastasized. This was more upsetting than the original diagnosis. I went to pieces. Then a great physician said, “You’re not going to die today.” That was just what I needed to hear. It got me out of bed when all I could think about was, “I have lung cancer.”

Now I understand that I am living with a chronic disease. Living!  I recently learned I’m ALK positive, so there are therapies developed that target the cancer cells while leaving the healthy cells to do their job to heal me.

No one deserves cancer. No one deserves lung cancer. I’m still here and live with immense hope. Teaching about radon is my therapy now.

Update: Gail passed in 2020. She is survived by her husband, stepsons and four grandchildren.

First Published: February 24, 2014

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