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Special to The Miami Herald

Harriet Bensman never smoked a day in her life. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003, the Weston grandmother couldn't believe the irony.

''I spent so much of my life telling people not to smoke,'' she said.

Three years later, Bensman, a retired speech pathologist, is cancer-free. She lost half a lung during surgery following her diagnosis and is chronically tired and short of breath.

But she is passionate about pouring her energy into a fledgling group trying to raise awareness about the need for early detection and research into lung cancer.

The group is forming under the leadership of the Lung Cancer Alliance, a national advocacy group committed to advancing a lung cancer research public policy agenda. Their mission is to create advocates in every state.

The first obstacle is removing the stigma that all patients are smokers.

''The first question I'm always asked is how long did I smoke for,'' said Bensman, who suffered from a nonsmoking-related cancer called adenocarcinoma. ``We want people to realize there are so many of us with this nonsmoking form of cancer.''

According to the alliance, lung cancer kills more people each year in the United States than breast, prostate, colon, liver and kidney cancers and melanoma combined.

Even though it kills nearly twice as many women as breast cancer, it garners the least amount of research money.

Even more troubling is the increase of lung cancer in nonsmokers, primarily women. They make up 15-20 percent of all new cases.

''Until Dana Reeve died, no one was talking about it,'' said Kim DeProspero, South Florida communications director for the advocacy group, referring to Reeve's death from lung cancer earlier this year.

In addition to the spotlight Reeve's death focused on nonsmoking-related lung cancer, the alliance was also energized in March when nonpartisan resolutions were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate declaring lung cancer a national health priority and calling for a 50 percent reduction in mortality within nine years.

The mission now is to find advocates in every state. The job in Florida falls to Marvelle Colby, a 73-year-old who has beaten lung cancer.

She is pushing state legislators to provide 1 percent of state tax dollars for lung cancer research and detection in Florida, where more than 13,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with lung cancer this year.

''I want to have a representative of the Lung Cancer Alliance in every senatorial, congressional district, and I want people to start writing,'' Colby said. ``The more noise we make, the better.''

For DeProspero, the fight comes five years after she lost her mother to lung cancer. Her mother smoked, but had a chest X-ray every year, which failed to pick up any problem until it was too late. Her mother died 38 days after being diagnosed.

To become involved or for information, visit www.


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