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Love, Life & Lung Cancer: How Tracy Became an Advocate

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 7:42 AM

The face of lung cancer as presented in ads doesn't always reflect reality. While many have gotten used to the idea that lung cancer is a smoker's disease, Tracy Murphy sees it as one that runs in the family. After she herself beat lung cancer, she became an advocate for changing the face of lung cancer. She shares her story below:

You have been a very active advocate for lung cancer – what inspired you to begin working for these initiatives?
Lung cancer seems to run in my family. I was diagnosed with stage 3B non-small lung cancer in 2009 at 39 years old. I was given about a 35% chance of making it to remission, and about a 5% chance of surviving 5 years. My grandfather died of lung cancer in 1975 at the age of 64, and my mom ran out of time during her 14 year battle with lung cancer September 4th 2016, just a few weeks ago. Being an athletic competitor, a strong “Make the play, cry later” attitude was instilled in me by my dad on the softball field when a ball took a bad hop and hit me in the face; I play to win ALL the time! This attitude, I believe, helped me to defeat this threat on my life, so when I found LUNGevity and learned how dedicated they are to raising awareness, funding crucial research, as well as providing education and support to the lung cancer community, I knew I survived for a reason; To help others on their journey to life after lung cancer. LUNGevity has given me the knowledge, tools and support to use my voice to become a lung cancer advocate, helping my brother and sister survivors and working towards helping create a world where no one dies of lung cancer.

What is a common misconception that you think a lot of people have about lung cancer? How do you think we can change this?
The biggest misconception about lung cancer has to be that it is an old man smoker’s disease. Why wouldn’t it be?  Every classroom in grade school had that poster of the old, rough-looking man with yellow teeth and nicotine stained fingers holding a cigarette telling us that smoking causes lung cancer. The truth is, however; that isn’t true. Here’s a truth: Almost twice as many women die of lung cancer than die of breast cancer each year. Here’s another truth: Over 60% of people diagnosed with lung cancer are NON-SMOKERS (those who never smoked or quit over 20 years ago).  

How do we change the misconceptions? We need to change the face of lung cancer to make people notice, to make them care. Breast cancer did that; the face of breast cancer became our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, best friends… it became personal. We need to make lung cancer personal. I am the face of lung cancer. My mom is the face of lung cancer. YOU are the face of lung cancer, because ANYONE can get it! It's not a smoking thing; it's a breathing thing! All you need are lungs!

How has your own treatment experience with Dr. Hensing and his team at NorthShore impacted your current work and outlook? What do you remember most about your time there?
Dr. Hensing and my entire medical team at North Shore are just amazing! From the moment I was diagnosed, I felt safe in their care. My mom was treated there and survived with worse odds than I was given. I trusted them completely. Dr. Hensing is on the cutting edge of lung cancer research, so he is up to date on all of the new treatments and trials. He also took as much time as was needed to explain everything to me and my family, and answered all of our questions in terms we could comprehend. Even though I had only a 5% chance of living 5 years, Dr. Hensing never treated me as a lost cause. He was always upbeat and positive. He treated my cancer aggressively and treated me as a person, not just another tumor inside of a patient. He treated me with determination and hope, which gave me the encouragement to fight and win.  

Other than Dr. Hensing, I must mention the nurses, techs and even the transport personnel, maintenance people and volunteers. When I had to stay in the hospital for weeks at a time, they were outstanding! I remember nurses staying with me and holding me while I cried in pain in the middle of the night. Even non-medical staff would brighten up my day by watching sports with me on TV. Because of Dr. Hensing and everyone at NorthShore, I now know that lung cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence. There is hope for many more tomorrows!

You’ve had some very exciting experiences at the Breathe Deep NorthShore Walk/Run! What do you enjoy most about participating in events like these?
I am on the committee for the LUNGevity Breathe Deep NorthShore Fun Run/Walk that takes place each year in April at Deerfield High School. I do whatever they need me to do, but have mostly worked on the community outreach projects. I went to Wheeling High School, and talked with students and faculty about lung cancer and our event, and also to Wheeling Village Hall to talk about our event, why it is so important to me and to accept the proclamation proclaiming the event day as Breathe Deep NorthShore Day, and to invite the Wheeling township officials to the event. I truly love this event! I get to meet and reunite with local lung cancer survivors, some who have become like family. This event allows our families, friends and our whole community to come together for a common goal; to eradicate lung cancer. There is music, food and drinks, and services such as massage, a photo booth, face painting and other fun activities. The walk and run are through a picturesque nature reserve and it never gets boring. The ceremony before the walk is heartfelt and beautiful. A few people come up to speak including a committee member, a doctor, a survivor and maybe a city official. The ceremony concludes with a balloon launch, which is very moving and one of my favorite parts of the day.  

(Tracy getting a surprise proposal from now-husband Jeremy)

This past Breathe Deep Event was a little different. It was the most exciting, special and incredibly meaningful Breathe Deep Event of all to me. When I crossed the finish line, I immediately saw all of my family, friends and so many others, including the event photographer and videographer waiting for me. I found my mom and posed for a few pictures. That’s when Jeremy, the love of my life, walked up, hugged and kissed me, and said, “Baby, I just walked the 2 mile lung cancer walk with you, will you walk with me for the rest of my life?” He dropped to one knee and presented my grandmother’s engagement ring. He knew how much I loved that ring! I couldn’t believe it was really happening because he had been telling me for years that he loved me and I was his forever, but marriage just wasn't for him. Both the photographer and videographer captured it all; further proving that there IS life and love after lung cancer!

What are some of the other events you’ve been working with? What would you like listeners to learn from your story?
I have had the privilege and honor to speak as a survivor at the Chicago Lung Run this past September, just two weeks after losing my mom. I was also invited to the Bears game on October 2nd as a guest of Chris Draft and his family foundation, where I was allowed on the field and able to meet some of the Bears Alumni, including my all-time favorite, Gary Fencik. Chris and I have the same goals when it comes to lung cancer. We both know that education is key, but in order to educate people, they need to want to hear what you have to say. We also know that in order to make people care about fighting lung cancer, we need to make it personal. Show them that anyone can get lung cancer. He does this in part with his “Survivor in Every Stadium” platform. Each survivor has a story, and when others see these survivors are just like them, they pay a little closer attention and the education begins. I want people to realize that this is not just a smoker's disease. If you have lungs, you are at risk.  1 in 15 people will get lung cancer, and it is the #1 cancer killer REGARDLESS of smoking history. It's time to do something about lung cancer. The life you save may be your own… or that of someone your love.