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.”

No signs of trouble

“My situation was rather unique,” said Kathleen Larson, a 50-something psychotherapist, wife and mother of two from Carmel Valley who was diagnosed with a 1-inch tumor after voluntarily undergoing a body scan in December 2001. “In the span of 10 days, I went from thinking I was completely healthy to having my entire left lung removed.”

A nonsmoker with no family history and no risk factors, Larson’s happenstance CT scan resulted in a diagnosis of stage-one lung cancer; any delay may have been fatal.

“Our lives were completely blown apart,” Larson said. “It made no sense.”

It was a similar story for Linda Schwenkmeyer, a wife and mother, whose children were 11 and 14 when her lung cancer was diagnosed. Healthy and active her entire life, someone who never even tried smoking, Schwenkmeyer suddenly began having headaches and neck pain. After months of testing, she and her family were told her stage-four lung cancer had metastasized to her neck.

“The entire thing was absolutely devastating for all of us,” said Karl Schwenkmeyer, Linda’s husband.

After a three-year battle against the disease, Linda Schwenkmeyer passed away at age 52 in February 2009.

After her death, just before the first San Diego Breath of Hope Lung Cancer Walk, Karl Schwenkmeyer stepped in to replace his wife on the planning committee. He is again involved in this year’s event.

“One of the issues around the lack of funding is the lack of survivors to promote the cause,” he said. “It’s great to get the lung cancer community — those people that are directly touched by it — involved all together. It’s actually a very uplifting experience for all of us to come together.”

San Diego Breath of Hope

  • What: Lung Cancer Walk
  • When: May 2 at Cancer Survivors Park, San Diego
  • Registration/Health Fair: 7:30 to 10 a.m.
  • Walk: 9 to 10 a.m.
  • Register or donate:

  • Resources:

Just the facts

  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women and in every ethnic group.
  • More people die of lung cancer than those who die of colorectal, breast, pancreas and prostate cancer.
  • Almost twice as many women die of lung cancer as breast cancer.
  • An average of 437 people die every day from lung cancer.
  • Only 16 percent of lung cancer is being diagnosed at its earliest and most curable stage.
  • Lung cancer is the least funded in dollars per death of the four major cancers (breast, prostate, colon, lung)
— Source: Lung Cancer Alliance (