2,800 Miles to the Summit

Mary and her husband

By Rev. Dr. Mary Holder Naegeli

Rev. Dr. Mary Naegeli serves as the Associate Chaplain at John Muir Medical Center in California. She is also an almost-four-year lung cancer survivor. She uses her own experience with cancer to help guide and support patients at the hospital. She and her husband will be driving from California to Washington DC to attend this year’s National Advocacy Summit. We sat down with Rev. Dr. Naegeli to learn a little more about her and why she has decided to drive 2,800 miles to share her story.

How has lung cancer changed your life?
Getting this disease, for which I had no risk factors, brought into my family the burden of caring for someone with a prolonged illness. It was good practice for them, and I learned how to receive care in a new way. But still, you hate to be the one whose condition makes your daughters cry.

In a time of great need and weakness, the experience of diagnosis and treatment for cancer tested my sources of medical, emotional, and spiritual support. They all passed with flying colors. I experienced the healing power of God. I overcame the fear of death. I learned how to adapt to physical limitations. I made new friends and my old friendships were enriched. I laughed a lot more than I cried. I wrote a detailed account of the journey every day and I discovered a kinship with fellow cancer patients, survivors and families.

Hiking in the mountains

On the down side, I developed asthma which was probably as a result of the radiation. While hiking in my beloved hills, I feel the loss of one lung lobe when I get short of breath before my heart rate gets to its optimum level or exercise. I still submit to regular CT scans, see five different doctors and get several labs done every year, all to remain medically vigilant.

Periodically, I have a few days of anxiety. These struggles are associated with an upcoming scan or even my “cancer-free” anniversary. Also, I am a hospital chaplain, and if I encounter several patients with deadly recurring cancers during any given week, I feel some anxiety well up. Before I had cancer, I never gave the disease a second thought.

Why have you dedicated your time to drawing attention to lung cancer?
At a very basic level, I just hate the idea that others will have to go through this ordeal, unless and until we find ways to detect lung cancer and even prevent it. If my participation in awareness and advocacy efforts can shine a light on lung cancer and its eradication, then I’m in!

Last year, during a trip to Washington DC, you visited your state representatives on Capitol Hill. What was it like sharing your story with leading government officials?
Well, I’m a natural conversationalist and, as a preacher, am used to telling stories! And the fact that I’m the one who knows my story best gave me confidence. The scenario is a little nerve-wracking, though: you generally have only 15 to 20 minutes with legislative aides, and then they stand up and the meeting is over. I was lucky to run into my own senator, Diane Feinstein (D-California), in the hall for a precious three minutes of heart-to-heart connection, and that was just plain exciting.

Meeting with Senator Diana Feinstein (CA)

I hope that the people I spoke to will remember my face, my story, and my plea to act in the best interest of lung cancer patients and survivors. I hope they will fund research, initiate new studies on lung cancer, and guarantee continuous care for pre-existing conditions. Congress can do something concrete and astounding if it shares my passion for progress toward eliminating this disease.

You are attending the National Advocacy Summit this fall! What are you most excited for?
My husband and I are planning our cross-country road trip around the dates. I am most excited to see our “strength in numbers,” to hug families who have lost loved ones to lung cancer and to celebrate life with fellow survivors. I am also excited about the possibility that we, working in concert at the Summit, can make lung cancer the topic of discussion on Capitol Hill that day.

Join Mary and other passionate lung cancer survivors and advocates for the National Advocacy Summit in Washington DC from September 27-28, 2017. Learn more!