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Montessa Lee

Photos and text used with permission of
Ms. Montessa Lee.

I was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer at the age of 28 - an x-ray revealed a 15-cm mass in my chest. I didn't smoke and I wasn't around smokers, so I wondered where the cancer had come from. When I began to research lung cancer, I became painfully aware of the grim statistics. I learned that research, prevention efforts, and treatment for our disease were grossly underfunded. Furthermore, the disease is attached with a stigma (smoking). I wondered why - when we see strides being made for the advancements in treatment of other cancers - our five-year survival rate had not changed much in the last 15 years. I became enraged by the lack of hope for the lung cancer community resulting from a shortage of prescreening techniques, the shortfall of research funding, and the low survival rate. My anger has metamorphosed into a passion. Three years later, I am still alive! I am a survivor and I am here because I have to give this disease a voice. I must fight for those who were taken from us by this disease, like my paternal and maternal grandfathers, the young 19-year-old student studying to become a teacher, and others I have heard about on this journey.

I try to advocate for myself and others in any way possible. I strongly believe we need advances in early detection and more treatment options to offer individualized treatment plans. In addition, the public needs lung cancer awareness. Most Americans have no idea that lung cancer is the leading cancer killer and the most diagnosed. Knowledge and research funding are two major factors that can help with the advancement in treatment for lung cancer patients and their caregivers.

Working with the Department of Defense Lung Cancer Research Program peer review panel brought me face to face with others advocating for lung cancer research. I sat next to scientists and oncologists who are "in the trenches" fighting this disease, and they wanted to hear about my experiences; they were curious about my perspective. I realized I was not in the fight alone. Here were people who shared my passion regarding lung cancer. Here were scientists engaged every day in lung cancer research. Here was hope for future advancements and promising innovative treatment options for lung cancer patients. I learned that the consumer perspective is integral to all this, and that is the message I hope to convey to anyone I encounter affected by lung cancer.