Cancer survivor fights for awareness

The Lung Cancer Alliance California will host the Second Annual Breath of Hope Lung Cancer Walk on May 2 at Cancer Survivors Park in San Diego. The event will begin at 7:30 a.m. with registration and a health fair, followed by the walk at 9 a.m.

The goal of the event, according to co-founder and lung cancer survivor Mike Stevens, is to raise much-needed research dollars, as well as educate the public about a fatal disease that brings not only the very real threat of death, but a painful stigma as well.

'Don't ask if I smoke'

Stevens, a resident of La Jolla with a wife and two children, was given two months to live after being diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer in June 2005.

"The survival rate for that is under 5 percent," he said. "Most people die ... in the first year."

Almost five years later, he's still here and believes it is for a reason. One of his goals is to debunk the myth that lung cancer is a smoker's disease.

Almost two-thirds of people who get lung cancer don't smoke, Stevens said, and asking if they do smoke implies that they've brought the disease on themselves. He likens it to asking a person infected with HIV if they had unprotected sex or a person with heart disease how much bacon they ate.

That assumption also seems to correlate to the lack of dollars earmarked for lung cancer research. Despite more people succumbing to lung cancer than those who die of colorectal, breast, pancreas and prostate cancer combined, lung cancer receives the least amount of financial support.

"If we're really going to make a difference in the disease, we need to get the federal funding behind the disease," Stevens said.

Dr. Lyudmila Bazhenova, a medical oncologist and lung cancer team leader at UCSD, agreed: "Not enough money, I think that's the main challenge. The second challenge is ... we're really not putting our patients on clinical trials."

The stigma attached to a diagnosis of lung cancer makes patients reluctant to speak out about it, as well as reticent to participate in research that will likely not do much to save them.

Stevens, who has been through several courses of treatment, including drugs and removal of a part of a lung, has harnessed his fear and frustration to help others dealing with similar diagnoses; he volunteers at support groups and is a phone buddy to many.

"When I first got diagnosed, someone did that for me and it really helped," Stevens said.

In addition, he aggressively advocates for state and federal legislation, such as the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act, that will channel funding to lung cancer research initiatives.

"If I can make it easier for anybody else," Stevens said, "that's what I want to do. I'm here for a reason. It wasn't something that I could leave for someone else to do. If everyone who was healthy enough to make a difference did something, we could do a hell of a lot."

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