Becoming a Champion for Patients With Lung Cancer

Lung Cancer Heroes®, CURE® Lung Cancer Heroes® 2020 Essay Book, Volume 1,

"In the three years since her diagnosis, Lisa has become a champion for those with lung cancer, raising money for research and advocating for policies to find new treatments and cures."

For months, 50-year-old Lisa Przybyla had a nagging pain in her right shoulder and back that she attributed to exercise and strain. The pain continued to worsen over time and became excruciating when lying down. As the months went on, Lisa began experiencing shortness of breath. Lisa underwent months of doctor appointments and tests, including MRIs and a CT scan, which revealed a pleural effusion (fluid buildup between the lungs and chest). Thoracic surgery was scheduled in March 2017 to drain the fluid and to find out what was causing it. During this surgery, doctors found a cancerous mass in the lining of her right lung and diagnosed Lisa with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer caused by the ALK gene mutation.

This type of cancer is extremely rare, making up only 2% to 5% of all lung cancers. Most patients are nonsmokers or light smokers between the ages of 30 and 60. Some survivors, however, are as young as 17. The good news is that it can be treated by targeted therapy.

Lisa was the beneficiary of a new drug called Alecensa (alectinib) that had been approved for non-small cell lung cancer just 15 months earlier. The Food and Drug Administration granted approval for first-line use in November 2017.

Lisa’s diagnosis came as a complete surprise. Having led a healthy lifestyle, lung cancer was not even on her radar, yet despite having both good days and bad days, Lisa decided to fully embrace life and turn this experience into something positive.

After her diagnosis, Lisa turned to the American Lung Association in Wisconsin to offer support for others with lung cancer. In the three years since her diagnosis, Lisa has become a champion for those with lung cancer, raising money for research and advocating for policies to find new treatments and cures. Her volunteer activities have included the following:

  • Fielding a team — the ALK Warriors — at three Milwaukee area LUNG FORCE Walks and being top fundraiser by raising more than $11,000.
  • Serving as the 2019 Wisconsin LUNG FORCE Hero, participating in the Lung Association’s annual Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. At that event she met with five elected officials to lobby for increased National Institutes of Health funding for cancer research and to protect the Affordable Care Act.
  • Being a member of the American Lung Association’s Advocacy Network and Rapid Response team, which contacts elected officials about important issues that affect people with lung cancer and other lung disease.
  • Serving as a lung cancer mentor for Imerman Angels, an organization that links newly diagnosed patients with lung cancer with those who have already traveled the lung cancer road.
  • Sharing her story with the media through news interviews, social media videos and letters to the editor.
  • Volunteering for numerous Wisconsin programs and events, including the Fight For Air Climb and the annual O2 Oxygen Ball.

There is no request too large or small, whether it’s unwrapping and assembling 1,500 turquoise pinwheels for the LUNG FORCE Walk or cutting and laminating signage for the Fight For Air Climb. Her positivity and kindness are truly unmatched. She gives of her time, talents and resources and shares her personal journey with lung cancer to inspire hope and change.

Lisa has always accepted that at some point the cancer will get smart and learn how to get around her present treatment. That was confirmed in April 2020, when her scan revealed small spots in the lining of her right lung. Because radiation can’t be used to treat this area, Lisa will continue with her current targeted therapy. A further scan in June will determine next steps. Regardless of the outcome, Lisa will always take an active role in her health care.

During these difficult times, Lisa never lets life take a back seat to her cancer. She focuses on the good things such as living each day and staying hopeful. She is feeling well, traveling and remaining optimistic.

Lisa sums up her journey with lung cancer this way: “Cancer takes away a lot from its patients and leaves you feeling very helpless. I can’t do anything to control the cancer, but I can share my story to make others aware that lung cancer can affect anyone. If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. It not only affects the patients but their families, too. We need to support funding for research and treatment as well as education. We are stronger together.”

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