A walk for lung cancer research

The news hit Amy Waggoner hard.

Her best friend and law partner, a 52-year-old mother, was diagnosed with lung cancer. No known treatment could save her. And no one, to their knowledge, was any closer to finding one.

"My heart just stopped," she said. "It felt like I'd been punched in the stomach."

According to a study released recently by the Journal of Clinical Oncology, lung cancer deaths are declining in the United States with one exception: They are increasing among middle-aged Southern women.

In Georgia, the lung cancer death rate for white women born around 1960 is 20 percent higher than for those born in the 1930s, said Ahmedin Jemal, vice president for Surveillance Research at the American Cancer Society and lead author of the study. Meanwhile, California's lung cancer death rates decreased in all age groups younger than 75 starting in the 1990s. For those born after 1950, the death rate is less than a third of that for those born in 1933.

Regina Vidaver, executive director of the National Lung Cancer Partnership, wasn't surprised by the Journal of Clinical Oncology's findings. She said lung cancer incidents and death rates primarily reflect the smoking patterns in those states. In addition, smoking rates began declining among men well before they started to go down in women.

Lung cancer, Waggoner found out, is the leading cancer killer of women in this country, taking nearly twice as many women's lives as breast cancer. And yet funding for lung cancer research — both from the government and philanthropic agencies — pales in comparison to the nation's investment in breast cancer.

"I was horrified at the lack of research," Waggoner said.

Soon after her friend's diagnosis in May 2008, Waggoner began talks with the National Lung Cancer Partnership about its Free to Breathe fundraiser events and what she could do to change that.

"I wanted to work with someone who was research focused and who was responsible with their money," Waggoner said. "They are the only charity founded by physicians and researchers specifically to do lung cancer research, education and awareness."

Initially, Waggoner wanted to bike across the country to raise funds but in the middle of planning the ride, the recession hit. She couldn't take the time off from her family law practice and stay afloat.

"I found out about the Free to Breathe program and that there was not an event already here in Atlanta, so I decided to start one," she said.

In 2010, the year her friend died, Waggoner held her first walk. Some 400 people from across Atlanta walked the 3.1 miles through Virginia-Highland, raising nearly $35,000.

"I was shocked and thrilled, absolutely thrilled," Waggoner said.

This year's walk, Waggoner's third, will kick off at 8:15 a.m. Aug. 18 in the John Howell Park in Virginia-Highland. She's hoping for 600 participants and $50,000 to donate toward research.

Although the walk is in honor of her friend, Waggoner said she wants to make sure people understand it isn't a morose event.

"We're going to have a good time and do good at the same time," she said. "It's a celebration, its hopeful and while there is some sadness for those of us who've lost people to lung cancer, it's an incredible feeling to know that we're doing something about it."

It is what Waggoner's friend would've wanted.

"She loved to have a good time and was one of those people that never met a stranger," Waggoner said. "She always, no matter who you were, made you feel important and loved and cared about. "

Because she worked out every day, maintained a positive outlook and never smoked, Waggoner said, "to lose her to such a devastating disease at such a young age just doesn't make sense."

But it does explain the need for more research and for women to be aware of their bodies.

Vidaver recommends that women seek help if they think something is wrong. "Find another doctor if necessary," she said. "Know the symptoms of lung cancer so you can get treated as quickly as possible if you do have the disease."

Anyone experiencing one or more symptoms such as shortness of breath, recurring respiratory infections or wheezing, should see their doctor and ask for a full physical, including a chest CT scan if the doctor thinks it's warranted, she said.

"It doesn't matter if the person experiencing these symptoms is 20 or 70, smoked a lot or not at all, because anyone can get lung cancer," Vidaver said.

"However, because the risk of lung cancer remains higher for up to 30 years after quitting, it is especially important for everyone -- regardless of their smoking history -- to be aware of the risks and symptoms of lung cancer," she said.

To slow or eliminate the uptick, she said, there are two primary things people can do. One, don't smoke, and if you do, get the help you need to quit. And two, check your home for radon gas.

Lung cancer symptoms

Blood when you cough or spit

Recurring respiratory infections

Enduring cough that is new or different

Ache or pain in shoulder, back or chest

Trouble breathing

Hoarseness or wheezing

Exhaustion, weakness or loss of appetite

Source: National Lung Cancer Partnership

Free to Breathe Atlanta Lung Cancer 5K Run/Walk & 1-Mile Walk. 8:15 a.m. Aug. 18.

$25 online registration by Aug. 14, $30 day of event. John Howell Park, Virginia Avenue, Virginia-Highland. 770-641-8200, www.freetobreathe.org/atlanta

Free to Breathe Atlanta Lung Cancer 5K Run/Walk, 7 a.m. registration and check-in Aug. 18

John Howell Park, Virginia Highland, (near Inman Middle School) Atlanta, GA 30306. www.freetobreathe.org/atlanta