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I was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer on September 19, 2016. The doctor told us that it was inoperable and radiation was not an option. It felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I immediately began thinking of my children and my wife, Lisa, and that my time here on Earth was very limited. I had no words that day, only utter despair. As the initial shock wore off, and the option of getting selected for a trial medication was offered, I realized that I may have a chance at fighting cancer and not letting cancer "fight" me. I’m ALK positive, so I was able to start taking a targeted therapy drug. It was shortly after the diagnosis and when I had no choice but to accept this as my fate, that I made the decision to fight this disease by becoming proactive in my care. I have always been a man of strong faith, and God has not failed me yet. Sometimes it takes something so big to appreciate waking up each day to your family and the people you love! I pray to God every night to give me another day. I was looking for an organization that focused on spreading awareness about lung cancer and funding research. I also liked that LUNGevity provided so many different types of support. We created a team for Breathe Deep Boca Raton, a 5K walk and run that raised lung cancer awareness and funds for LUNGevity for research and support programs. My wife and I are very active in our community, so we started reaching out to people to encourage them to come out and support the event. We advertised in local restaurants and reached out to local schools and youth recreation programs, and got some things going. My kids and I used social media to spread the word and I followed up with phone calls to remind people to show up. A friend of mine is in a band, so we asked them to come out and play live music at the event. Parts of the event are more somber, when we’re honoring the people we’ve lost to this disease, but other parts are uplifting and hopeful when we talk about research and the progress being made. I think the impact in the community is two-fold. First, it helps to raise awareness about lung cancer. I felt so strongly about making sure people realize that lung cancer isn’t only for smoker. And it also brings awareness about LUNGevity and that this a specific organization to help people impacted by lung cancer. I’m grateful for the research and medication and for the support of my family, friends, and the community. I hope the fundraising goes toward research to help find more targeted therapies. We need to fund research for treatment options that increase survival rates and help contain and manage the disease. I’m ALK positive, and there are treatments for that specific mutation, but I’d like them to find treatments for other mutations as well. I still look at the glass half full, because today, I am still here. My loving wife and children stand with me every day in this long, tedious, sometimes unbearable cancer journey. Through my positive energy and prayers we stay strong, and in September 2017, we celebrated my one-year cancerversary!
I first became involved with LUNGevity through National HOPE Summit, a survivorship conference in Washington, D.C. Seeing so many survivors and being able to share our stories and gain knowledge made the experience very special. I’m always impressed by the quality of what I learn and what is shared. The fact that the medical researchers can interact with patients in an intimate setting and participate in the roundtable discussions is very inspiring. Going to HOPE Summit has been a springboard for many other volunteer and advocacy opportunities. At my first conference, I learned about the LifeLine peer-to-peer support program. As a long-term survivor, I wanted to use my story to try to inspire hope in others who were living with lung cancer, so I jumped at the chance to give back as a mentor. Through HOPE Summit, I also got to know Andrea Ferris, LUNGevity’s President, and Katie Brown, LUNGevity’s Vice President of Support & Survivorship. Katie recommended me as a reviewer for the Department of Defense research grant program and I love being part of that. LUNGevity also connected me with Eli Lilly & Co. who produced an Emmy-winning documentary about my family and me. I've attended a congressional luncheon on Capitol Hill with LUNGevity, and a lab tour at Lilly. I was looking for ways to give back in my local community, so a few years ago I started a support group in Fort Myers, Florida. The group provides wonderful camaraderie and community. We meet once a month to share stories and experiences and resources, and we also get together socially once a month. We’re a close-knit group. In 2017, I convinced four members of my lung cancer support group to attend National HOPE Summit with me. We were so inspired that we decided to organize a Breathe Deep event in Fort Myers to raise awareness about the facts of lung cancer. We were able to share our story in local media and even surpassed our fundraising goal. We held the 5K walk and fun run on November 4 to kick off Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Breathe Deep Fort Myers brings attention to lung cancer and the lack of funding and gives us the opportunity to get rid of the stigma. We want to let the people in our area know that you don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer, that two out of three of the people diagnosed are never-smokers or quit many years ago. Being an event coordinator gives me such a feeling of purpose. I’ve been so aimless since I retired from teaching because of my health. Helping others through this event and through the support group is very rewarding. Our number one goal is to provide much needed research funding. We also want to raise money for patient education and support, and help continue to bring top-notch speakers to HOPE Summits. I hope that both the walk and the support group continue to grow and make an impact in the community. LUNGevity is so patient-oriented and offers so much support and information and education that it aligns with my goals. I want to give back to LUNGevity because I feel like they’ve given a lot to all of us. That makes me want to do as much as I can to help support LUNGevity’s mission to improve quality of life and survivorship. Melissa (bottom right) with members of the Fort Myers Lung Cancer Support Group and their families at the 2017 National HOPE Summit.
When my dad, Fred Gontarek, was diagnosed with lung cancer, I felt lost. I wasn’t sure where to turn. I searched the internet as most people do to see what support was out there and what was being done to raise funds for research. Sadly, there were not many local organizations or funds being raised for lung cancer. I vowed to try to change that. I found the Breathe Deep Philadelphia Event was coming up in the Fall of 2011 and knew we needed to be there for Dad and with Dad. Team Fred started in April 2011 with the motto “No One Fights Alone” to show my dad how many supporters he had and to give him hope during his battle with lung cancer. Fred fought as hard as he could until he passed away on April 28, 2012. The motto was then changed to “Never Forget” since our memories of him and what he meant to us continues to live on. Team Fred first walked in 2011 with Fred by our side and today we still walk in his memory as he watches over us. I first formed a team for Breathe Deep Philadelphia in 2011 and have continued to volunteer each year after that. This year it is an honor for me to be the event coordinator for Breathe Deep Philadelphia. The Breathe Deep events program provides knowledge and support during a difficult time. These events give friends and loved ones a chance to gather together to not only raise funds but raise awareness and offer their support. The most rewarding part of being a Breathe Deep event coordinator is knowing that I have a part in raising the funds necessary for critical lung cancer research. My dad was a man who would do anything for anyone and I know that if he were here today he would be right by my side helping in any way he could. My focus is keeping his memory alive while hoping to positively change the lives of others. I hope my fundraising efforts will support life-saving research that is necessary so that one day we can live in a world where no one dies from lung cancer. Kara (right) and Team Fred at Breathe Deep Philadelphia Kara and Fred dancing at her wedding