Breathing in

Breathing in

Local woman demonstrates how non-smokers are being diagnosed with lung cancer every day

By Caroline Shannon-Karasik

Members of “Team Sara Jane” at last year’s Free to Breathe 5K Run/Walk.

Members of “Team Sara Jane” at last year’s Free to Breathe 5K Run/Walk.

Remember those horrifying photos of charred, worn lungs that our middle school health teachers liked to use to make a point during non-smoking lessons?

Mention lung cancer and that’s the image most people conjure. And even though it is a stereotype that links lung cancer to only a bad habit or an unfortunate case of chemical exposure, it’s a notion that, for some reason, seems easier than acknowledging the truth: We can all get lung cancer.

I’ll admit, I was once partially a part of that crowd. That is, of course, until I met Sara Jane Whitlock. The Dayton resident, a 47-year-old wife and mother of two girls, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer last October.

The woman never put one cigarette to her lips, nor had she been exposed to chemicals or any of the other more common factors that can lead to lung cancer. The goody-two-shoes gal never even experimented during the rebellious years of teenage youth — how many of you can say that? I know I can’t.

That’s why the irony of the situation is all too perfect for teaching people about the many different forms in which lung cancer can present itself. In fact, Whitlock breaks it down like this: “Lung cancer can affect anybody with a set of lungs.”

Whitlock is helping to spread that message and more about the disease in an effort to help other people who face a similar road. One event that has become especially important to her is the upcoming Dayton Free to Breathe® 5K Run/ Walk & 1 Mile Run/ Walk Saturday, Nov. 5 at Centerville High School.

“We want to achieve what they did with breast cancer,” said Event Organizer Suzanne Albers about the event, which is hosted annually during November to acknowledge National Lung Cancer Awareness Month. “[As money is raised] people become more aware of the disease, and if you’re aware of the disease, then you know [what needs to be accomplished]. Sara really shows that one person can make a difference — she’s out there speaking, and showing other people how to make a difference too.”

Whitlock first found out about the event from a friend, a mere three weeks after her diagnosis. After discussing it with her husband the two decided to try to raise $500 to support the cause. With only five days before the event took place Whitlock knew it was a large undertaking, but pushed forward nonetheless.

By the end of the week she had raised nearly $10,000.

“It was astounding what happened,” said Whitlock. “It was this amazing time — everybody wanted to do something, everybody in my life who found out what was happening to us wanted to do something.”

As I listened to her speak, what struck me most about Whitlock’s story was that it addressed an even larger topic: How much do we really know about lung cancer?

In Ohio in 2010, there were 10,710 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed and 7,260 lives taken as a result of the disease. What’s more, Sheila Von Driska, the executive director of the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation in California, points out that nearly 80 percent of new lung cancer cases are former and never smokers, according to a 2006 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whaaat?! I couldn’t believe it.

“The general population still believes that only smokers can get lung cancer which has kept the funding of lung cancer so low for almost a half a century,” said Von Driska. “This misconception is simply not true.”

I find myself traveling back to Whitlock’s earlier point: Lung cancer can affect anybody with a set of lungs.

It made sense. After all, everyone who has a brain can get brain cancer. Why would I think the lungs were absolved from this fact? Of course, certain habits and factors don’t help the cause, but I realized this wasn’t an if-then equation.

“Approximately 221,000 patients per year in the United States get lung cancer, and approximately 156,000 die,” said Dr. Gref Otterson, a medical oncologist who specializes in lung cancer at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus. “It is far and away the greatest cause of cancer death in the U.S., accounting for more deaths than the next three causes combined (colorectal, breast and prostate). It is a women’s disease, by virtue of the fact that more women die of lung cancer (71,340) than breast, ovarian, cervical or endometrial cancer combined (67,390), according to the American Cancer Society Facts & Figures for 2011.”

Scary stuff, right?

Whitlock knows that feeling all too well. A nurse practitioner, she said she had none of the “classic” symptoms — coughing, weight loss — leading up to her diagnosis.

“If you pinned me down, I might have said I had a little bit of fatigue,” said Whitlock. “But I wouldn’t have said I was any more fatigued than my friends.”

It wasn’t until she discovered an enlarged lymph node on her collarbone that Whitlock became alarmed and called her general practitioner. After that, there were a swirl of tests and results that led to the final diagnosis. From there, Whitlock received the most aggressive form of chemotherapy possible for the next four-and-a-half to five months, leading to hair loss and an inability to sustain her life as she knew it.

“It stripped me of everything that I would have told you I was — a wife, a mother — all of that was kind of gone,” Whitlock said. “And what happened is my friends and family rallied around, and took care of the things that I couldn’t, and I was able to focus on getting better.”

After chemotherapy, Whitlock endured radiation, then a surgery this summer. She is currently using a drug that is administered for 15 minutes, three times a week through a catheter that was placed into her skin. Whitlock said while the doctors can’t say her cancer is in remission because of its stage IV status, they can confidently say it is as close to remission as she might hope to achieve.

“If you saw me walking down the street, you’d never know,” Whitlock said with an inspiringly giddy laugh. “Except I have really short hair!”

Whitlock is back to work 15 hours a week, can take care of her kids and even walks four miles, five times a week.

“I feel like I’ve just gotten the greatest care possible and feel not only very cared for, but cared about, and that’s been very important to me,” Whitlock said of her treatment at Wright-Patterson Medical Center.

And, like the breath of fresh air that is hinted within her voice each time she speaks, Whitlock maintains that it is hope — hope that is derived from her faith and hope that lies within research — that keeps her fighting for her cause.

“Such strides have been made in the lung cancer arena,” Whitlock said. “But to speak very frankly, if I hope to live to see my girls who are now in the seventh and fourth grades graduate from high school, then more research has got to be done.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ll run for that.

For more information about the Dayton Free to Breathe® 5K Run/ Walk & 1 Mile Run/Walk, visit FreeToBreathe.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Caroline Shannon-Karasik at CarolineShannon-Karasik@DaytonCityPaper.com.

About Caroline Shannon-Karasik

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