Health & Medicine

Nurse creates two events to advocate for lung cancer research, patients

Lisa Maggio is advocating for better lung cancer research. Her father died of the disease in 1990, just six months after diagnosis.
Lisa Maggio is advocating for better lung cancer research. Her father died of the disease in 1990, just six months after diagnosis. Mary Meehan

Ignace Fenlon Winterberg, Bud to his friends, started smoking when he was 11, although some family lore says it was 9.

He was born in the 1920s, and his was a world filled with ads touting the health benefits of cigarettes and billboards telling people things like "four out of five doctors recommend Pall Mall."

His daughter Lisa Maggio said she thinks she saw something like betrayal in his eyes as he was dying of lung cancer. His unfiltered Camels were his constant companion and source of comfort. Now they were killing him.

Maggio's dad died in 1990 at age 69. A railroad engineer all his life, he never got to enjoy the retirement he'd so long talked about.

But his death did put Maggio on path that led to her current efforts to educate people about lung cancer and to advocate for improved research. She co-chairs the Free to Breathe Lexington Walk on Nov. 10, and a Shine the Light on Lung Cancer vigil on Nov. 13.

It didn't happen all at once, she said, but after her father died, as a nurse, she spent too many days patching up patients suffering from smoking-related illness.

"I decided I was working on the wrong end of the problem," she said.

Lung cancer advocates say it is the lethal stepchild of the cancer world. According to Lungevity, a lung cancer advocacy group, lung cancer takes more lives annually than breast, prostate, colon, and pancreatic cancers combined. Kentucky has one of the highest lung cancer rates in the nation.

Maggio's personal story is of watching a loved one suffering to the end with an addiction to smoking, but she also wants people to know that "anybody can get lung cancer." In fact, more than half the people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked or have already quit smoking, she said.

There is no other cancer whose sufferers almost immediately are put on the defensive about their part in creating their disease, she said: "The first thing the doctor asks is, 'Do you smoke?'"

"I think stigma has a lot to do with why we haven't done more as a nation for lung cancer," said Jeanni Thompson, a nurse navigator specializing in oncology at Central Baptist Hospital. "People just accept it, and they don't get the help they need because of the idea that they caused this and did this to themselves."

Thompson, who is helping to organize the vigil, said it's important that cancer survivors and families who've lost someone feel support from the community.

"There hasn't been support for patients and their families," she said. The vigil shows "that we are going to do something to help."

Regina Vidaver, executive director of the National Lung Cancer Partnership, said that is especially important in Kentucky.

"In that area, there are so many families affected by this disease. This vigil allows people to feel recognized and that somebody is fighting for them too," she said.

Thompson hopes the vigil and the walk can spread the word that there is a recently approved screening for lung cancers, she said. Those at high risk for lung cancer, heavy smokers or those exposed to environmental hazards that could cause cancer should look into a low-radiation CT scan.

That, she said, could improve the long-term survival rates of those who are diagnosed. Currently, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is about 15 percent, and it has remained largely unchanged since the 1970s, Maggio said. Money from the walk will go to cancer research to help change that statistic, she said.

"The message that I want to make sure is clear is that we are trying to make lung cancer is just as survivable as breast cancer," Vidaver said.