We were living in Chelmsford, MA at the time of my diagnosis, so we went to Saints Memorial Medical Center in Lowell. It didn't take too long before I was admitted. This was an experience for me, since the last time I was a patient in a hospital was more than 40 years earlier.
On that first day, I learned that I had contracted pneumonia and my left lung had collapsed. Two days later I was in surgery to get the lung cleaned out. That night I was told I had contracted lung cancer. The surgeon also said it was not operable. The tumor had grown around the pulmonary artery.
My wife and I decided to get a second opinion, so we made an appointment to see an oncologist at Mass General. We walked into his office on September 23rd. That doctor said he knew someone who could do something. He said surgery wasn't completely out of the question. My left lung was removed on November 3rd. After four regimens of chemotherapy I was all set.
That was almost nine years ago.
The key to what I would be doing nine years after surgery, how I reacted to contracting cancer and losing a lung, came on that first visit to my surgeon's office.
As I waited for the doctor, I noticed a poster on the far wall. As I approached its central message jumped out – November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month! The poster was the creation of a group called the Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support and Education (ALCASE).
When I got home I looked up the group’s website. Among other things, I found a page dedicated to Lung Cancer Awareness Month. At that time, ALCASE was looking for governors across the country to name November Lung Cancer Awareness Month in their states. Massachusetts was a blank.
I wrote a letter to the governor of Massachusetts, which at the time happened to be Mitt Romney, requesting that he name November Lung Cancer Awareness Month in Massachusetts. I didn’t realize it, but at that moment my life’s work changed.
I have to be honest, when I wrote that letter I didn’t play fair. I didn’t give Romney too great a chance to say “No!”
At that time, I was the news editor and a columnist for a Massachusetts newspaper. I was on a medical leave from the paper, but I wrote a column on lung cancer and my experiences. In the column I mentioned that a positive step I took was to write the governor about Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
Let me tell you, the “power of the press” is quite real. The column was printed in late October and a few days after it appeared, I got a call from an aide for a state representative. She said the governor had signed the proclamation and the representative had it.
On November 2nd of that year, while I was attending an event in one of the towns I covered, the state representative presented me with the proclamation. It was the night before my surgery. I became a lung cancer advocate the day I wrote that letter. A few months after my surgery, I started speaking to groups, directly attacking the stigma attached to this disease.
In 2006, my wife and I moved to New Hampshire. And it was in New Hampshire that I ran my first Shine a Light on Lung Cancer Vigil in 2010. This year I am planning my third vigil. After a number of years on the advocacy side, I decided to also work on the support side as a Phone Buddy as well.
As an advocate, I’m helping people with lung cancer. By standing in a public forum and shouting to the world, I feel I am helping countless numbers of people struggling with this disease. I am doing all I can to take on the stigma associated with this disease. I am doing all I can to make it safe to say, “I have lung cancer!”
As a Phone Buddy, I’m helping one person deal with something that is terrifying. I try to give that one person a reason to hope. I try to make that one person realize all the emotions he or she is experiencing are normal. I try to give that person a reason to keep fighting.
On September 5, 2003, when I left the newsroom to head home, I didn’t realize it would be pretty much the last time I was a member of the working press. I did go back part-time, starting in mid-December. I figured I could slowly get back to a full-time schedule; but that didn’t pan out. I could never readapt to the high stress level of the newsroom, so on March 30, 2004, I walked out of the newsroom for the last time.
As an advocate, I am helping people I will never know deal with lung cancer. As a Phone Buddy I am helping people I know. As an advocate, I will never know the names of the people I help, so I can be detached and deal with just the facts. As a Phone Buddy, I know the names, I know the feelings and I am emotionally involved.
And it helps me as well. Reporting the news was a passion for me. To me, digging out a story gave me a feeling I really can’t describe. I get a similar feeling when I advocate for lung-cancer victims and when I do everything I can to give someone hope.
And advocacy for the cause and support for the victims gives me one more thing, something that is most important to me. Advocacy and support answered the big question – Why me?