By Sue Bersh
Five years ago I held my best friend’s hand and watched her take her last breath. For the 2-1/2 years leading up to that moment, I watched Elyse fight a truly impossible battle against lung cancer. What I saw, shared, and felt shook me to my core. When Elyse’s fight ended at age 45, mine had just begun.
I recently read a blog that quoted Christopher Robin saying goodbye to his beloved friend, Winnie the Pooh: “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” The author said to imagine your lost loved one whispering this in your ear and in your heart as you move through life without him or her.
I have tried to turn my loss and sadness into something positive, and that has helped me do things I had never imagined that I could. I am now a passionate lung cancer advocate. Ask me about lung cancer, and I will tell you about Elyse and my amazing friend Jill, who lost both of her parents, two grandparents, and her aunt to lung cancer and was diagnosed herself five years ago at the age of 39. I will tell you all that I know about lung cancer until you care about fighting this disease too. It’s hard not to care once you know the facts.
With only a 17% 5-year survival rate, lung cancer does not have an army of survivors/advocates telling their stories. Many patients are busy fighting for their lives, and so many who have lost loved ones are exhausted and defeated. Adding insult to injury, this is a disease that has wrongly been shadowed with a stigma of blame. People think this is smoker’s disease, but over 60% of those diagnosed have never smoked or are former smokers who quit long ago. Even if someone did, or does, smoke, we ALL have made unhealthy choices. As with any devastating diagnosis, there should be no judgment ~ only compassion and support. No one deserves lung cancer.
Although it takes more lives every year than the next top three cancers combined, lung cancer is the low man on the cancer totem pole when it comes to research funding. My LUNGevity friends and I strive every day to turn this around by raising awareness, growing our supporters and advocates, and raising funds for desperately needed research. There is something very special about coming together for something so meaningful, and when you’re the underdog, small strides can make a BIG difference. We don’t take any gesture of support, big or small, lightly. Every voice and every effort is extremely valuable and empowering.
As I continue Elyse’s fight as a board member of LUNGevity and Event Co-Coordinator of Breathe Deep North Shore, I am in awe of the generosity of friends, strangers, co-workers, businesses of all sizes, and entire communities that support our efforts. People open their hearts, their minds and often their wallets to support this cause – a cause they may not have understood before. Every conversation is an opportunity, and every display of support is a gift.
Three years ago I called our inaugural Breathe Deep event a Field of Dreams – because that’s what it felt like when over 1,200 people streamed into the gates of our fun-run and walk that year. And each year, as our event grows, I am in awe of what a dedicated group of people can do to create community and provoke change. People of all ages have rallied for LUNGevity and the fight against lung cancer like I never imagined. Breathe Deep North Shore is a perfect example of a community uniting for a cause and creating change one voice and one dollar at a time. It’s an experience that leaves your heart full.
This is very personal for me. I am driven by Elyse’s memory and sweet spirit, Jill’s courage and dedication as an advocate, and the need to help the 226,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer this year ~ a few are bound to become my friends, as other lung cancer survivors/patients have. We need means for early detection. We need better treatments. We need to change the conversation from “Did he/she smoke?” to “How can I help?” We need more hope!
In recent years, there have been great strides in research and there is much to be hopeful about – - yet there is still much more work to be done. YOU can help! Be an advocate for a day, a month, a year, or for always! Educate your friends so we can erase the stigma, increase awareness and funds for research, and help save lives. 1 in 14 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime. It is destined to touch us all.
Join me and my team, Elyse’s Legacy, on April 27th at Deerfield High School or start, join or donate to another Breathe Deep North Shore team (Jill’s is Just Breathe), or tell a friend or stranger the facts about lung cancer. Your voice matters and can truly make a difference in changing the course of this disease.
We can do this – together! You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. Help us MAKE HOPE HAPPEN!