Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Long Way to Go

November is Lung Cancer Awareness month, and next Sunday Nov. 7th, I will be attending the second annual Breathe Deep DC (BDDC) 5k walk for the Lungevity Foundation. If you'd like more info, please visit

I've helped out the last two years with the event, and have been amazed at what a small group of people have done to raise awareness about our #1 cancer killer. The walk was started by my friend Jerry Sorkin, who is currently battling lung cancer. This is actually his second go-round with cancer, having beaten it back as a college student many years ago. He is married with two great kids and an awesome wife. Anyways, the walk came about last year when Jerry wanted to find an event to attend during Lung Cancer Awareness month in the DC area. And he was stunned to find that NONE existed. NONE. And this is a disease that kills more people that breast, prostrate & colon cancer COMBINED. So Jerry got together a few people, put them to the task of conducting a wall on the National Mall.... people who weren't fundraisers or working for a non-profit, just a group of people who wanted to make a difference for Jerry and everyone dealing with lung cancer.

Below is what I wrote when asked to say a few words about why I am involved in the event (few words- hah!)

I was engaged to Dan Waeger, whom we lost to stage IV lung cancer at the age of 26 in March 2009. At the time he was diagnosed, Dan was just 22 years old. He was pursuing a Master's degree at Wagner College where he was also the assistant golf coach. The diagnosis came as a total shock. Not only was he just 22, but he was a lifelong athlete. He was a non-smoker from a family of non-smokers and with no known risk factors.

Dan took his diagnosis in stride. He commuted from New York to Baltimore to receive chemo, and maintained his full-time student status. Not an easy feat. It was his experiences as a young adult dealing with cancer who did not want to put his education on hold that led him to found the National Collegiate Cancer Foundation (NCCF). When friends and family wanted to raise money for him, he instead gave it away to young adults who did not have the "team" he did- friends, family, health insurance, etc.

Dan lived with his stage IV diagnosis for almost four years. During that time, he made cancer advocacy his life's passion. Foregoing a career on Wall Street, he instead took a job in development at the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, the nation's oldest survivor-focused organization. He also advocated passionately for lung cancer research and awareness, trying to dispel the stigma associated with the disease. He hoped that by sharing his story and "winning" attitude, he could impact change.... on a policy level, but more importantly, on a personal level with those who were not educated on the truth about lung cancer.

But the greatest thing about Dan was that despite his cancer diagnosis, he was the most normal person to be around. He would have chemo on a Friday, and return to work full-time on Tuesday. He traveled, golfed, had beers with his buddies, spoiled his nieces & nephews... and fell in love and proposed to me! (Perhaps his wisest choice!). We were engaged in March 2008, and true to form, set out to plan our wedding a year later. Many people ask why we didn't get married right away... well, we wanted to have everything that normal people have when they get engaged... a year-long engagement, parties and a grand wedding. Unfortunately, about 3 months after we got engaged, the cancer spread to his liver. It was devastating news, but together we spent the next 9 months together fighting for his life.

Despite his harsh treatments, he never gave up working or traveling to raise awareness. In fact, one of the last speeches he gave was to Eli Lily in which he issued a call to action to the company President to adopt lung cancer- an orphaned cancer. He stood up there, knowing he did not have long to live, to thank the researchers for developing Alimta, a drug that gave him 3 years of a great life. Until the end, he wanted to fight and spread his message... "Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it". Together, we blogged about our life and living with cancer. That blog was visited by over 15,000 people around the world.

He died in March 2009, and there has not been a day that goes that I don't miss him, am not proud of him and am not motivated to raise awareness for lung cancer. Since he died- I've tried to live the way he taught me. I've picked up NCCF and we are building that for a great future to help young adults. We've raised over $120,000 for our scholarship program. And I've become involved in lung cancer advocacy. Which is how I met Jerry Sorkin. We were both advocating on the Hill for another organization (the Lung Cancer Alliance). We happened to sit next to each other on a bus ride. I remember thinking- "This guy must have lost a parent"... so I was shocked- yes me!- when he told me he has lung cancer. And we become friends. So of course I wanted to help with BDDC in any way possible.

I guess the angle that most people take with BDDC is around raising awareness and research dollars. But what people don't understand- unless they've dealt with lung cancer- is the complete isolation of the disease, especially for those who have lost someone. People ask why they don't hear about lung cancer if it's our #1 cancer killer. Well, very few people survive the disease. And those that do make it beyond the first year... no one tells you what it means to live with the disease. There are few survivors to hold walks and events... only devastated families who lose their loved ones swiftly and painfully, and are left to wonder what happened. Why isn't there pride associated with living with lung cancer? Because people think those diagnosed have brought it on themselves through smoking. Why can't we detect it earlier? Because there are not adequate tests. Why is it so tough to treat? Because your best option is to catch it early and cut out part of a lung.

BDDC is the first event of its kind here in DC. Yes- we are raising money for research. But just as importantly, we are allowing those affected by the disease to come together... to grieve, to celebrate, to acknowledge our fight and anger that this disease has been ignored for too long. I KNOW that one day we will fill the Mall with survivors and family & friends just like the breast cancer walks do. And this is not a knock on breast cancer at all. Rather, the progress they've made with that disease is a great benchmark for us in the lung cancer fight.

So, I am involved with BDDC because of Dan Waeger. My love who challenged me to be positive, to be proactive, to be accountable and to make a meaningful difference in the world. And I don't know anyone else who holds those qualities more than Jerry and our team at BDDC.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

We Keep Winning

To all who helped with Waeger Cup VI....THANK YOU!!!! We raised close to $15,000 for our scholarship program and blew past my expectations (which isn't easy to do!). We had a fantastic day at the Links of Gettysburg. The weather was great, the golf was better! We had so many people who donated and volunteered... too many to fit in the program this year! I hope to have pictures up as soon as I find the attachment to my camera :)

As I was standing up in front of everyone at dinner (175 people!), I was really struck by something. First off, I was so honored to be representing this wonderful community that comes together every year to support NCCF. Most people come back year after year, and have tirelessly supported our mission. One thing I've learned... never doubt the power of a small group of people can change the world (thanks, Margaret Mead!). My "job" gets easier each year because so many people step up to help... and it isn't always with a big check. They tell Dan's story, and next thing you know- others want to help in any way. So I'm going to refer to myself as chief snowball roller... just making that snowball and letting it loose from the top of the hill, and watching as it gets bigger and bigger the further it goes.

Second, and I said this at Dan's memorial on Fed Hill last March.... it only takes a spark to get a fire going. At Dan's funeral, the priest related Dan's diagnosis to God taking Dan into a dark tunnel, and leaving him with one single candle. With his candle, Dan lit those of others, until the whole tunnel was glowing. He made others feel less lonely, less dark in their own lives. And he showed us how one person can make a difference and keep making a difference. I hope that for those of us that support NCCF- when it seems a little stressful or we aren't doing enough- I hope we remember the power of one. We've given out 50 scholarships from an organization that was borne out of one person's thought to help others with less than he had. Dan knew nothing about cancer. He knew nothing about setting up a foundation. He knew nothing about giving out scholarships. He knew nothing about raising money. But he figured it out. He made an effort. And we are all figuring it out, learning as we go. I hope we take a step back and acknowledge that without cumulative efforts, 50 people would have a harder time staying in school. And those 50 people will touch so many more lives, sharing their story.

SO.... thank you all!!! We are doing amazing things. We will continue to do amazing things. I will always be here to help, but I can't do it alone.

Things don't go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up. They happen to break you down and build you up so you can be all that you were intended to be.