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Column: A survivor fighting to raise awareness

The diagnosis defied logic.

Sure, there had been some chest pain and difficulty breathing. But the dreaded “C” word? Couldn’t be.

Sarah Christ was only 50 when she went for a routine chest X-ray last year in hopes of getting to the bottom of her health issue. She figured it might be something like walking pneumonia.

Doctors would soon confirm that Ms. Christ had stage 4 lung cancer. Further scans revealed that it had also spread to other parts of her body.

“Initially it was a big shock to all of us,” said Ms. Christ, who lives in Riverhead with her wife, Martha Belesis, and three teenage children. “It was the last thing I expected when I went off to the doctor.”

On Oct. 28, nearly a year after her diagnosis, Ms. Christ participated in the Breathe Deep NYC walk to benefit the Lungevity Foundation. She hopes to use her misfortune to raise awareness about lung cancer and become an advocate for others who are also suffering. November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

“It was uplifting because there were a lot of people there, a lot of survivors, a lot of family members and people who have been doing the walk for years,” she said.

Her team raised over $17,000 and was the top fundraising group at the event, Ms. Christ said.

A lot of the fundraising was accomplished through social media. “We just kept asking everyone we know,” she said.

It was a shorter walk than a typical 5K, allowing people who are dealing with health issues the chance to complete it. Some participants were walking with oxygen.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and the second most common cancer among men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. An estimated 156,000 deaths will be attributed to lung cancer in the U.S. this year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

There’s a misconception, Ms. Christ feels, that anyone with lung cancer must have been a heavy smoker. In a sense, there’s less sympathy for lung cancer victims. They brought it on themselves, the sentiment goes.

While smoking is the top risk factor for lung cancer, the disease doesn’t discriminate against non-smokers. Between 10 and 25 percent of lung cancers occur in non-smokers, meaning people who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime. Former smokers make up another large percentage, meaning people who haven’t smoked in the past year, according to research published in the European Journal of Cancer.

Ms. Christ, now 51, would fall into the category of a former smoker. She smoked at times during her college years, but had given it up long ago.

While lung cancer remains such a deadly killer, a disproportionately low amount of federal cancer research funding is directed toward that particular disease, Ms. Christ said. While lung cancer dollars represented just over 5 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s 2015 budget, it was still the second highest funded disease behind breast cancer, which represents just under 11 percent of the NCI budget.

The story was personal for Ms. Christ beyond her own diagnosis. Her mother, Dorothea Christ, died from lung cancer at age 73 in 2009 after living for four years with the stage 4 disease. At the time, it was remarkable that she survived that long, Ms. Christ said.

Part of her advocacy is to also aimed at making people aware that a stage 4 diagnosis isn’t the death sentence it might have been even a decade ago. Last winter, doctors immediately put Ms. Christ on chemotherapy to begin treating the aggressive and fast-growing cancer. During testing, they discovered a mutation that responds well to a specific target therapy, which she started last March. By that time, the chemo had already decimated her long, blonde hair.

Her primary lung tumor has since shrunk, but the cancer had also spread to her brain and kidneys. Doctors used radiation on her brain. So far, nothing has grown and some tumors have shrunk or disappeared, she said.

“It’s pretty much a miracle drug I’m on now,” she said, adding that the treatment does have some irritating side effects, but nothing as dramatic as what chemotherapy does.

The treatment available now is “light years beyond what it was,” she added.

Ms. Christ said she feels well most days, but the reminders of the disease never go away. There are physical limitations that are frustrating. There are the pills she has to take in addition to the cancer medication — the cough depressant, the antacid. She hasn’t been working.

This past weekend, she traveled to Drexel University to be with her 19-year-old son for parents weekend. It was in Philadelphia one year earlier that Ms. Christ first realized she needed to see a doctor — a pain in her back felt like she had been stabbed. She remembers thinking about how last Christmas might be her last.

Now, she’s optimistic that she’ll see many more.

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].