National Lung Health Week: A Mother’s Story, Her Kids’ Resilience and Ms. Patti LaBelle
By: Chandra Lye
Susan Lee was in her 30s when her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Over 20 years later, Lee had to live through her own journey with lung cancer. Today she is an advocate for Lung Cancer survivors, serving as a spokesperson for the LUNG FORCE during National Women’s Lung Health Week. Her hope is to share her story and to bring more awareness to Black families. An American Cancer Society report notes that one in 24 African American women will die of lung cancer.
She said the experience of being with her mother through surgery and re-occurrence helped her realize how she could guide her own kids through the experience.
“Now I recognize, reflecting back, the fear that my mother had because I had the same fear but she never let us see that. She didn’t let us see it. She was just strong for us. That strength helped us be strong as well.”
Lee said she found her strength in her faith.
“There were a few weeks when I was down where I just stayed in my room and I prayed because I wasn’t sure of prognosis. I wasn’t sure of the staging. It is about developing that inner faith that allows you to get up and keep going.”
The American Lung Association says that lung cancer has the lowest five-year survival rate of all cancer types. Part of the problem is that by the time symptoms are noticeable the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
The American Cancer Society reported 105,590 new cases of lung cancer in women in 2015. It was responsible for the death of 71,660 women. Of those deaths 850 women were below 45-years of age and 19,380 were younger than 65.
When Lee first learned of the solitary pulmonary nodule in her lung she and her husband decided not to tell the kids.
“We were like ‘let’s just get further down this road before we say anything to the kids’.”
The couple met with a surgeon and decided Lee would undergo surgery to remove the tumor.
“It was supposed to be a three-hour surgery. She said, ‘We’ll go in. We’ll just take the tumor out. We’ll take a few lymph nodes around it and then we’ll close you up.’
“So, long story short, seven hours later she woke me up and said ‘yup. It was cancer. It was a carcinoid and we removed the lower right node of your lung.’”
Then there were eight weeks of recovery for Lee.
“The one thing I know about anybody who I have seen survive cancer is you get up and you keep going.
“So what I did is I got up. I started walking three days after I got home. I could only walk a little bit but I was walking. I continued to walk and now I walk 10,00 steps. I don’t do it every day now but I do it three or four times a week. I get my 10,000 steps in because to me air is important and the strength of your lungs is important and going on is important.”
She said she was also determined to be strong for her children, who had experienced her mother’s loss.
“I needed to show them that mom was going to be here. It’s okay. Things are going to be okay and you just get up and you keep going.”
Lee said she tears up thinking about how they broached the subject with their three children who were 13, 15 and 20 years old at the time.
“We started with ‘mommy might have cancer. They are going to cut it out and mommy is going to be fine’.”
It was when she returned home following the surgery that the family really had to pull together.
“Mom does everything. Mom is the center point of the home. We cook, you know, we take care of them. We drive them places. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t cook. But that is why it was so important for me to begin to get back up.”
Lee said it was empowering for her kids to be a part of contributing and helping during her recovery.
“I think in the midst of having an adverse situation it is amazing to see the resiliency of your kids and the strength that is inside of them and the empowerment they have. So that is the one thing that I can say when I walk away from this experience is my kids are more sensitive. They are more empowered to do more to help. And they are very resilient. They have been able to make it through this.
“Does the fear still exist? Yeah, my little one still says to me ‘What if the cancer comes back?’ and I tell her, I tell her ‘I can’t guarantee that it won’t. But as you can see mommy’s is still going. If God decides something different understand that is God’s will, but right now we are here. So let’s live right now.”
LUNG FORCE has also partnered with Patti LaBelle for a new video to create awareness of lung cancer in women. LaBelle lost two of her sisters to lung cancer.
“It’s all about hope and progress, but awareness and education are still critical – I was surprised to learn that only one in four African-American and Hispanic women even know that lung cancer kills more than any other cancer. I’m encouraging everyone to give their one hundred percent in the fight against lung cancer – even ninety-nine and a half won’t do.
For more on lung cancer visit the Lung Force website.