A 56-year-old teacher at Washington Center Elementary School when she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2006, Cathryn Robertson of Fort Wayne had never smoked – and neither had anyone in her family.
But by the time the cancer was found, it had already spread through her body – to her spine, her brain, her adrenal glands, her bones. After what her daughter calls a brave and dignified battle, she died in 2008 at the age of 57.
One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard is that if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer, says Kristen Robertson, 34. You don’t have to be a smoker. That’s the thing that everybody should know.
On Sunday, Kristen will honor her mother, and all lung cancer patients, during the Free to Breathe 5K run/walk and 1-mile memorial walk at Shoaff Park. It is the second Free to Breathe walk in Fort Wayne.
She organized the fundraiser for the National Lung Cancer Partnership, a Madison, Wis., group that aims to double the disease’s survival rate by 2022.
According to the partnership, lung cancer causes more deaths annually than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. And, while breast cancer affects more women, lung cancer claims more of their lives.
Yet, partnership officials say, when it comes to research, lung cancer remains underfunded.
The federal government spends nearly $21,000 for each death caused by breast cancer, about $12,000 for each prostate cancer death and about $6,000 for each colorectal cancer death. Lung cancer spending is less than $1,500 for each lung cancer fatality.
And, Robertson says, too many people see the disease as something people bring on themselves by smoking.
That, she says, is not always the case. About 10 percent to 15 percent of patients never smoked, according to the partnership.
Environmental exposure to radon gas and asbestos account for some of those cases, but not all, Robertson says.
Researchers are now looking into the genetic components of the disease inasmuch as the risk of developing lung cancer is higher if someone in your family has had lung cancer.
Regardless of what caused their disease, Robertson says, all patients deserve compassion and the best care possible.
We need to do something for the patients, she says. The survival rate is not good. One of the statistics is that only 16 percent will survive five years beyond diagnosis.
Robertson, who followed her mother into teaching and works with kindergartners at Perry Hill Elementary School in Northwest Allen County Schools, says she got involved with the National Lung Cancer Partnership about three years ago.
She says she liked that it was founded by doctors and researchers and focuses on funding research toward better treatment and advocates for a better quality of life for patients. Since 2005, the partnership has given out more than $3.7 million in research grants.
Robertson helped organize the inaugural Fort Wayne walk last year, when 173 participants and sponsors raised about $15,000. This year, she hopes to increase that amount and double the number of participants, who can register online through Wednesday at www.freetobreathe.org for $25 or at the event for $30.
A rally at 2 p.m. will kick off activities, with the 5K starting at 2:15 p.m. and the memory walk at 2:30 p.m. There will also be a silent auction and balloon launch.
Robertson says participants may commemorate a loved one by wearing a tag with his or her name on it or write a message inside a balloon. Two area lung cancer survivors – Julie Menefee of Ossian and Rita Bubb of Fort Wayne – plan to attend the walk.
When Robertson’s mother developed lung cancer, she, like many patients, had no symptoms. The disease was not discovered until she fell in the shower and subsequently developed pain in her spine – a piece of tumor had broken off and become lodged there.
I have to say that my mother was the most amazing woman I’ve ever known, her daughter says. After taking a bit of time off after she was diagnosed, her mother returned to her job, and she continued teaching until about five weeks before she died.
If you knew her then, you didn’t know she was sick, Kristen adds. She went back to teaching because that was her true passion. Her two great loves were her family and teaching.
My mother was my hero. I try to be like her every single day.