Lives Touched by Lung Cancer Spark Advocacy Torch in Others

By Jimmy Tomlin

When Whitney Spagnola lost a dear friend to lung cancer nine years agoBonn_Addario, the experience opened her eyes—and she, in turn, opened her heart.
“She was only 45 at the time, and she had been very healthy and leading a life very much like mine, raising young children,” Spagnola recalls of her late friend, Liane Glave. “Then she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and in a very short period of time she lost her life, and it changed her family’s life forever.”

The experience changed Spagnola’s life, too, leaving a gaping hole in her heart that needed mending.

“I felt like I needed to do something for my own healing,” she says.

That’s how Spagnola, of Los Gatos, California, soon found herself volunteering with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation in nearby San Carlos. Established in 2006 by lung cancer survivor Bonnie Addario—who overcame a grim prognosis and survived the disease—the foundation quickly became an important part of Spagnola’s life.

“Someone introduced me to Bonnie,” she says, “and when you meet Bonnie, you just instantly fall in love with her. She’s real and personal, and she has so much compassion and love that you want to be a part of what she’s doing. I wanted to jump in and help, so I got involved—I became one of her soldiers.”

Since then, Spagnola has lost another close person to the disease, family friend King Lamadora, which she says “further entrenched me in trying to help the Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.”

Spagnola has embraced the foundation’s mission of increasing lung cancer’s patient survival rate—a mere 17 percent—and making it a chronically managed disease by 2023. To do that, she says, more research dollars are needed—and that likely won’t happen at a significant level until the stigma of lung cancer can be erased or at least diminished, she explains.

“If lung cancer is the number-one cancer killer“—which it is—“then why is it the least government funded cancer?” she asks. “One likely answer is that people see lung cancer as a smoker’s disease, but we’re learning that’s not the case at all.”

Anyone can get lung cancer, she emphasizes. In fact, nearly two-thirds of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients either quit smoking decades ago or never smoked to begin with. And that’s one important task the Addario Lung Cancer Foundation has undertaken—to dispel the myth that people who get lung cancer bring it on themselves by smoking.

One way the foundation does this, Spagnola points out, is through Jill’s Legacy, an arm of the foundation dedicated to the memory of University of California Berkeley student and athlete Jill Costello, who—despite never having smoked—died of lung cancer in 2010, at the young age of 22.

Whitney-and-Liane“We’ve got a whole advisory group of young professionals fighting this disease,” Spagnola says of the Jill’s Legacy board, each member of which is a young professional personally touched by lung cancer. “As more of these types of things happen, the stigma of lung cancer has to begin to diminish.”

The good news? Spagnola says that shift in perception is already taking place.

“I think there’s been a significant increase in awareness,” she says. “We can only hope that funding will start to increase because of that.”

In the meantime, in addition to being one of the foundation’s most outspoken advocates, Spagnola has served on its board of directors since 2007, and she organizes a large team of walkers for an annual fundraising walk in San Francisco. To date, the foundation has raised nearly $30 million for lung cancer research and related programs.

“That’s been my biggest area of involvement, the fundraising and raising awareness,” Spagnola says.

She’s made such a difference, in fact, that Addario—the tireless, passionate lung cancer survivor who inspired Spagnola to join her foundation’s fight—now finds herself equally inspired by Spagnola.

“Whitney has taken on our passion to make lung cancer a chronically managed disease by 2023 as her own,” Addario says. “Every chance she gets, she includes the unmet needs in lung cancer in appropriate conversations and arenas. She doesn’t just read our financials in board meetings — she involves herself in our fundraising and awareness, as well. She is an inspiration to me.”

For more information about the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and its programs, visit www.LungCancerFoundation.org.