Shine a Light on Lung Cancer November 8, 2015

I was asked to speak at the Shine a Light event at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, CA. Below the video is a transcript, for those of you who like to read. The event certainly was not about me, and I will link to more info on the ceremony when it is posted and available, but in the meantime here is a small portion for your viewing enjoyment.

One year ago yesterday, I wrote my first blog post about lung cancer. I had just been diagnosed with inoperable metastatic stage 4 adenocarcinoma. That was a pretty long name for an ominous sounding condition that I knew relatively little about. People all around me — and it seemed everywhere across the Internet — were ready to express what a dire situation I was in. But I’m here to tell you that I feel great. Today is a fabulous day. Tomorrow I am going in for another infusion, a little bit of what I like to consider my “me time.” Granted I’m on maintenance therapy now and I kind of miss the longer treatment that I used to have, because it allowed me to get some work done on the blog or do some quality reading or catch up on my email. These days, my infusion happens too quickly to get much accomplished. But… I really can’t complain about that.

In fact I cannot complain about much. After all, I am Alive and I am feeling quite healthy. 20 years ago someone with my diagnosis would have had a vastly different prognosis. Unfortunately, so much perception about cancer in general and lung cancer specifically is still rooted in the perspective of what things were like two or three decades ago. The narrative that our society follows with regard to lung cancer is clearly outdated. I am here to tell you that there is a new story today.

To begin with, do not call me a lung cancer survivor. I am NOT part of your old statistics. And “survivor” is the term we use for someone in a situation where they are not expected to make it through. When you’re in a plane but there is a little bit of turbulence and maybe it doesn’t have the smoothest landing on the tarmac, the passengers who get off that plane do not say they are survivors. They were just passengers on a plane. When your plane crashes in the mountains and you have to hike through miles of snow down rocky ledges, you are a survivor. 20 years ago lung cancer was a plane crash in the mountains. Today, for progressively more of us, it is a rough flight, but one which we can expect to land. I am NOT a survivor. I am a passenger in this life. And I am continuing to be a passenger everyday, because I am continuing to notice my life and to live it. And to tell you the truth, more than ever before, I am flying in the pilot’s seat.

This is possible because of the dedicated research scientists and medical professionals like those here at Huntington Memorial and the staff at Keck Medicine of USC right next door, where I will be tomorrow. It is possible because of the countless patients who have gone through clinical trials over the years, full of hope that if not for them, then maybe for the next patient, there would be success with a new treatment.

And the new treatments have come. Promise continues to arrive in laboratories, making its way through the system and finding the way toward market with exciting targeted therapies and most recently the new immunotherapies that offer more options for more tolerable and more effective treatment than ever before.

Which brings me to the next thing you shouldn’t call me. I’m not a hero. I mean, I might be your hero, for whatever reason. But just having cancer and living my life the way I should have been living it anyway doesn’t automatically make me a hero. Those research scientists and medical professionals I just mentioned, however: they are heroes. They work in the face of adversity every single day, rising above the pain and heartbreak of patients it has been too late for them to help, or for whom the right treatment hasn’t yet been perfected, only to continue with their passionate commitment to finding a better way, to helping more people and maybe, just maybe, one day finding something like a cure.

And that is why events like this are important. Almost everyone I tell of my diagnosis asks me whether I was a smoker — I wasn’t, but the implication is still that maybe, somehow, this was my fault. And just because someone was a smoker still does not make it their fault. There are more risk factors out there than any of us realize and cancer isn’t anyone’s fault. People are not ready to believe that this cancer might just happen. Public perception is lagging far behind the facts and we need to educate everyone not only about the myriad of causes, but about the reality that life can continue with lung cancer. Thanks to innovative advancements made possible by the anonymous contributions of so many patients through decades of clinical trials, modern medicine offers so much more than hope.

When you look at me — and if you are living with lung cancer, or any cancer and you look in the mirror — I want you to see that I’m not sick, it’s just cancer. It’s a bump in the road of life, but the most interesting roads are often filled with bumps and detours and may lead to destinations we were not expecting. And, like me, I hope you are excited to find those destinations, to enjoy the journey and make the most of every bump.


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