HUNTLEY – When Meghan O’Brien tells people she has lung cancer, the first question asked is always, “Did you smoke?”
She’s grown tired of answering it since doctors diagnosed the 31-year-old Huntley resident with stage 4 lung cancer nearly two years ago. O’Brien has learned to clarify that she has nonsmoking lung cancer when recounting her story to people.
But lately, O’Brien has taken it upon herself to raise awareness about the stigmas associated with the disease and reflected in that question asked of her. She points to the statistics first.
The American Lung Association found that 60 percent of new patients diagnosed with the disease have either never smoked or smoked decades ago.
Lung cancer, meanwhile, is the leading killer among all cancers in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The five-year survival rate is slightly more than 16 percent. Despite its deadly effects, lung cancer research lags behind other cancers. The National Cancer Institute estimates that $17,835 is spent per breast cancer death versus the $1,378 spent for lung cancer.
After not smoking her entire life, O’Brien was diagnosed with the disease months after securing her dream job teaching health and physical education at a school in Hyde Park.
Doctors found that the cancer had spread to her spinal cord and discovered that a genetic mutation, called ALK, created the cancer-causing cells.
In the months that have followed, O’Brien has worked with a variety of cancer foundations in an effort to fight the misconceptions about lung cancer patients.
In March, she climbed 45 flights of stairs to raise research funding during the American Lung Association in Greater Chicago’s Fight for Air Climb at the Presidential Towers in Chicago.
O’Brien spoke with reporter Stephen Di Benedetto about her battle with lung cancer and the stigmas surrounding it.
Di Benedetto: Do people automatically assume that you smoked? What kind of reactions do you get when you tell people you have lung cancer?
O’Brien: They always assume that. The first question is ‘did you smoke?’ I’ve learned now to say I have stage 4, nonsmoking lung cancer. It’s frustrating. ... There is a lot of stigma that goes with lung cancer. It’s sad because if people took the time to read up about it, they could understand that it could happen to them.
Di Benedetto: Do you think lung cancer patients generally get a bad rap?
O’Brien: That’s why it’s such a hard time getting people to give money to lung cancer research because there is this mentality that, ‘You did it to yourself, so why should we help you?’
Di Benedetto: How has the cancer affected your life after the diagnosis?
O’Brien: Right now, I can’t work. Until they can make it more like a chronic disease, I won’t be able to work ... I was so ecstatic when I got that [teaching] job. I moved down into the city, and I was just devastated. Professionally, it took away my dreams of helping others and teaching and being able to coach. I loved working with kids because you can have such a big impact on a kid’s life. ... That’s the hardest part for me – not working.
Di Benedetto: With the Fight for Air Climb, why were you motivated to participate?
O’Brien: This past year, I started to get stronger and thought I could at least attempt to [climb] one of the towers. Each tower was 585 stairs and 45 flights. ... It was just a way to raise awareness and get people to see that just because I have lung cancer, it doesn’t mean I’m dead already. It was hard. I had to train for a while, but I wanted to get people’s attention.
The O’Brien Lowdown
Hometown: Marengo (family moved to Huntley 14 years ago)
Family: Dad Ken; Mom Judy; brother Ken; and sister Katie Benson
Education: Bachelor’s in intracultural speech communications, master’s in sports management and marketing, master’s in teaching from Southern Illinois University