In September, 30-year-old Meghan O'Brien had just moved to Chicago and was excited to start a new teaching job.
But just weeks into her school year, she was admitted to the hospital for what doctors initially thought was pneumonia. When she wasn't getting better, they ran tests that revealed something that had never crossed her mind: Meghan had stage IV non-small cell lung cancer.
"We thought for sure that whatever it was we could cure it or try to treat it," said Meghan's older sister, Katie Benson of Huntley. "But stage IV -- especially being lung cancer -- is not the news you want to hear."
Meghan immediately underwent emergency spinal surgery to remove tumors that were compressing her spine so much that she ran the risk of being paralyzed. Doctors removed a part of her spine and replaced it with titanium rods.
When Meghan was recovered enough to begin her cancer treatments, doctors discovered that she had a rare ALK gene mutation, which makes some chemotherapy ineffective. They switched her to a different chemo treatment that attacks the mutation, and Meghan recently found out that the treatments are working. The sizes of some of the tumors have decreased and others have disappeared. Meghan and her doctors are hopeful.
Still, these last four months have turned Meghan's life upside down in a way that she and her family never imagined. As a healthy, young woman who never smoked, she is not the face of lung cancer. Yet despite Meghan's seemingly unlikely diagnosis, she is not alone. Lung cancer rates in women and nonsmokers have been on the rise over the last decade.
Aside from tobacco use, lung cancer can be caused by factors such as radon, air pollution, genetics and secondhand smoke. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, and more than 228,190 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in 2013.
Despite these statistics, the disease continues to be one of the most underfunded cancers. With so few treatment options, families are often at a loss as to how to proceed. Although Katie and her family try to offer their support to Meghan in any way possible, sometimes they feel frustrated because they can't do the one thing they want to: cure Meghan.
"We've all rallied behind her, but what can we really do to help take away her pain?" Katie said. "She's the one who has to wake up every day with this."
Seeing her little sister struggle with her health and lose her independence has been especially hard for Katie, so she was grateful to find a unique way to help Meghan, now living in Huntley, and everyone else affected by lung disease.
On Sunday, Feb. 24, Katie will participate in the 16th annual Hustle Up the Hancock, a stair climb fundraiser hosted by Respiratory Health Association. More than 4,000 people participate each year to raise more than $1 million for lung disease research and programs. Katie signed up as a Lung Health Champion and set her fundraising goal at $2,500.
"Do I think it's going to be tough to climb? Yes, but Meghan has been through worse," Katie said. "What's climbing 94 floors compared to what she's been through?"
Katie's fundraising and training for the event have been a way for her family to take their minds off the stress of waiting for Meghan's test results. Her climb is also giving them hope for the future of lung disease. Respiratory Health Association is currently funding four lung cancer researchers at local institutions, one of whom is studying the very gene mutation Meghan has and ways to detect it to better correlate responses to drug therapy.
As a former physical education teacher, Meghan wishes she could climb alongside her sister in the Hustle. But because she can't, cheering her on is the next best thing.
"Meghan was very excited and happy to hear I'm doing this because she wishes there was a cure," Katie said. "Anything that anyone can do to find a cure, she's behind."
To support Katie in her fundraising efforts, or to offer words of encouragement, visit lungchicago.org/katiebenson.