With just one week to the Lung Cancer Alliance's San Diego Breath of Hope Lung Cancer Walk at Harbor Island on April 22, Patch caught up with a co-founder of the walk. Mike Stevens, a member of the national advocacy council with the Lung Cancer Alliance, spoke frankly about his own cancer and the common myths about the disease.
The walk serves two equally important purposes, according to Stevens, to raise money to reduce the mortality rate of lung cancer and to raise awareness of the disease.
There is still time to register to participate in the Breath of Hope Lunch Cancer Walk or support a walker. To learn more click here
Patch: Can you briefly describe your experience with lung cancer?
Mike Stevens: This answer could fill an entire paper. The day after I was diagnosed, a survivor helped me and my wife, answered questions and gave us direction. At that moment I knew I would pay it forward. So far I believe I have done it so over 100 fold, and I will never quit.
The hardest part of this can sometimes be the harsh treatment, but that is probably not as tough as making life long friends that you watch die again and again. This is a very deadly disease. There is a 95 percent chance for victims with stage IV, like myself, to die in the first year. I have watched the disease break hearts and bankrupt families.
Our country is in a need of a managed health care program. The current rationed care program is unacceptable. Everyone deserves a chance to live and the best care possible. I was suppose to live two months, and if the system had given up on me, like I have seen it do to others, I would not have been here to help so many who are in need of help and guidance.
I tell survivor groups that cancer is the worst and the best thing that has ever happened to me. Everyone should live their lives like they might not survive another week. We all need to enjoy life. Since being diagnosed I have:
- Contacted a family member I was out of touch with for over a decade.
- Taken vacations of a lifetime.
- Climbed to the top of the tallest mountain in the world.
- Built a vacation home of my dreams.
- Helped others that really needed help and support
Patch: How did you get involved with the awareness/funding side of lung cancer?
Stevens: I saw the statistics for lung cancer and got mad as hell. No other way to put it. Lung cancer receives a fraction of the funding of the other major cancers yet is responsible for one out of three cancer deaths. It has the stigma behind it that we all deserve what we got. Nothing can be farther from the truth. We don’t ask heart patients how much bacon they ate in their lives, so why do we ask lung cancer patients if they smoked? Organizations like the American Cancer Society keep focusing on the smoking aspect of the disease, perpetuating the stigma. We need to get beyond this. Almost two-thirds of those getting the disease don’t currently smoke. There was an ad featuring a survivor a few years back that said, “How can I quit smoking if I never started?”
Patch: How can residents get involved?
Stevens: First, vote for Prop 29, the $1 tax on cigarettes. Part of the revenue goes to lung cancer research. I am not an advocate of new taxes and don’t want to promote the stigma, but cigarettes do contribute to lung cancer as well as many other types of cancer. It would not be a bad thing to see them taxed off the face of the earth. I defend smokers’ rights to smoke but I also don’t want to have to breathe it. You can’t walk out of our airport without going through a cloud of smoke.
Patch: What are three facts about lung cancer?
- Breast cancer is not the No. 1 cancer killer of women. Twice as many women die of lung cancer than breast cancer.
- Lung cancer gets about $1,350 per death while breast cancer gets $26,500 per death; yet, lung cancer is responsible for one out of three cancer deaths.
- The number of people dying from lung cancer is equivalent to a fully loaded 747 crashing into the ground, with no survivors, each and every day of the year. Yet, no one is making any real noise about that many people dying.
Patch: How is lung cancer different than other cancers?
Stevens: The survival rate has virtually remained unchanged over the past 30 years, while all the other major cancers have had huge increases in their survival rates. We now have proven that by using CT scans for early detection, we can increase the survival rate of lung cancer by 20 percent and maybe even as high as 90 percent depending which study you look at. By comparison, mammograms, PSA tests and colonoscopies don’t even come close to the low number of 20 percent.
Patch: How has the walk changed over the last three years?
Stevens: I feel that we are starting to get awareness here in San Diego for the disease, but we still have a long way to go. We finally have a place for survivors and their families to come together, and the walk gets good coverage from the media each year.
Patch: Biggest missed opportunity or regret?
Stevens: We make our own destiny and opportunities. I worked too much when I owned my business, but I am enjoying life now. This is mainly because I know I am not supposed to be here and that each and every day is a bonus day.
Patch: So what is your largest reward/event?
Stevens: I received a survivor hero’s award a couple years back. It really meant a lot to me but not as much as some of the reactions from other survivors. I had a survivor in a support group start talking about his treatment, which was a drug I was on. He was explaining how the doctors told him it should be able to increase his life by 10 months which was the average it worked. I interrupted him and told him at the time I had been on it for 6.5 years. He slowly cracked a huge smile and told me I had just made his day. I can’t think of a better reward than that.
Patch: Name three inspiring individuals that have shaped you.
Stevens: The first would be a group and that would be of my friends. Their support has helped keep me alive. You never know how many friends you have until you need them.
The second inspiration would have to be my wife. This disease is as hard, if not harder, on her than me. It is hard watching a spouse so sick they cannot walk up stairs, or so sick from chemo they cannot get out of bed. She has given me the freedom to live life to the fullest and encourages me to do so on a daily basis. One of our common phrases around the house is: “Life’s short; why not do it?”
My third inspiration is all the other survivors going through this. There are many who have just been diagnosed and very few who have been battling it as long as I have. People call us heroes and talk of how strong we are, but what choice do we have? I have two kids in college. I am not ready to leave them alone yet.
Patch: If you could be doing any other job, what would it be?
Stevens: I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing than helping others.
Patch: What is next?
Stevens: I have no long term plans because I don’t know how long I will be here. None of us do. We should all live our lives to the fullest we can each and every day. Many times in my treatment I have been so sick, I have thought, “This is it.” But when I bounce back, I go out and try to enjoy life to the fullest again. I like to joke that if I have any money at the end to give to my children, I screwed up and didn’t have as much fun as I could have had.