La Jollan Mike Stevens fights lung cancer with a battle plan for all
At age 43, La Jolla resident Mike Stevens was a healthy non-smoker with a wife and two children. He never thought he’d have lung cancer. When he was diagnosed in 2005, Stevens had owned La Jolla Photo & Imaging for 23 years. He sold the business to undergo chemo treatments and spend his time raising public awareness and research funds to fight lung cancer. Six years later, after a dozen rounds of chemotherapy, Stevens is one of the 3 to 5 percent of people who survive stage IV lung cancer.
In 2009, Stevens and three other San Diego lung cancer survivors started the San Diego Breath of Hope Cancer Walk. This year Stevens will lead the third annual walk with another La Jollan co-chair Jane Marks. They invite other residents to join the walk at 9 a.m. Sunday, May 1 at Cancer Survivors Park on Harbor Island. Preregistration at sandiegobreathofhope.org is $30; onsite $35; kids $15. Participants will receive a T-shirt and ticket to the June 4 Padres Game. The walk is in association with the Lung Cancer Alliance (LCA), a national nonprofit.
What brought you to La Jolla?
I came here in 1978 as a freshman at UCSD. I loved diving and wanted to go into marine biology. I met my wife at UCSD and somehow wound up in the photography field where I bought La Jolla One Hour Photo when I was 23.
What makes this area special to you?
I always loved the natural beauty of La Jolla and San Diego. Having graduated from high school in the L.A. area, it was great to live in a place with no traffic and natural beauty. The days of no traffic are long gone. When I was in the photo business, I got to see many historical pictures of La Jolla and San Diego. I have always enjoyed learning about that history. One of my favorite times was whenever Ellen Revelle would come into my shop and tell me stories of times gone by. It was great to hear about the history from someone who was there.
If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you improve in the area?
It would be great to stop the bickering about issues that mean so little in the overall picture. It gets really frustrating listening to decade-old debates about seals and crosses. Enough already. Sometimes I have to laugh at the energy that is put into these issues when that same energy and money could be used to improve people’s lives and help those in need.
Who or what inspires you?
I have been battling stage IV lung cancer for almost 6 years now. It is a disease for which most people don’t survive the first year. I often ask why I’m still here. Many friends have told me that I have a purpose.
The day after I was diagnosed, a survivor (who I did not know all that well) sat down with my wife and I and explained what to expect and what questions we should be asking the doctor. For two people scared to death, these were the first positive words we could focus on. This person’s actions have inspired me to pay it forward to as many people as I can. Probably because of that one kind person, I became a cancer advocate and the California chair for the Lung Cancer Alliance.
The people I meet and help are truly the most amazing people in the world. No matter how bad I might feel or how bad I think I have it, it could be worse. I’m blessed that I have not had to endure what some people have. Somehow cancer patients get though each day, often with a smile. Anyone and everyone battling cancer inspires me. The stories of physical, emotional and financial suffering are heartbreaking, yet everyone I’ve met finds a way to keep moving forward.
If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?
I have a habit of talking about lung cancer and trying to educate as many people as possible when I am in social situations. Everyone thinks it is a smokers’ disease, and “smokers did it to themselves,” so people somehow deserve their lung cancer. I would want to sit down with the editors-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and from the broadcast side, the heads of ABC, CBS and NBC to set the story straight. Lastly, I would want to invite President Obama. It would be interesting to explain health care to him from a different perspective.
At this dinner, I would dispel the myths and present the facts about lung cancer. Facts like 2/3 of those who get the disease don’t currently smoke; that 1 out of 3 people dying of cancer, die of lung cancer; and that lung cancer (not breast cancer) is the No. 1 cancer killer of women, killing twice as many women each year as breast cancer.
I would also like them to understand the politics behind cancer research … how lung cancer only receives about 1/20th of the dollars per death that breast cancer receives.
Tell us about what you are reading.
I have started a couple of books a few times and keep putting them down, unfinished. You have to stay in one place to finish a book, and I am too busy enjoying life to be able to do that right now. There are still many things I have not done that I need to do while I am still here.
What is your most-prized possession?
My life, my family and my friends who have supported me and help me stay on this side of the dirt.
What do you do for fun?
I love the outdoors. There are many things that I cannot do anymore since I lost part of a lung — scuba diving being just one of those. Steep hikes are another. I enjoy hunting and fishing. I try to explain to people that it is all about the experience of being out there, about the amazing things you see.
I use to fish offshore a lot and thought it was so sad looking back at the shore at the millions of San Diegans who were so close, yet never saw their city from the water. I have watched whales just yards away from me rise up and grab a mouthful of krill. I have had bobcats, turkeys and deer walk just feet away from me and never know that I am there. Too many of us go through life and miss the simple wonders that are all around us.
Describe your greatest accomplishment.
I enjoyed my job at La Jolla Photo & Imaging, but no job is as rewarding as what I do now — helping people who are truly in need. It’s great being able to meet with someone who feels helpless and give him or her hope by encouraging him or her with my story of survival.
If I can do this and then they later call me up and tell me that I have inspired them to live, there is no better reward. I feel that is the purpose of why I must still be here.
What is your philosophy of life?
Lung cancer is both the worst and best thing that has ever happened to me. I try to explain to others that most people really don’t enjoy life the way they should. It’s sad that it often takes a life-threatening disease to wake a person up to what is around them.
I know that lung cancer will probably take me one day. That’s OK if I can have as much fun as possible between now and then. It is also great that my wife and many of my friends understand this and encourage me.
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