Denise Lee is a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association (ALA) and a lung cancer survivor. Denise recently worked with us as a spokesperson on our Lung Cancer Screening campaign. Ahead of World Cancer Day, we had the opportunity to chat with Denise about her experience as a survivor and advocate. She also shared her advice for those looking to spread awareness about issues they care about.
Sarah Cummings: Could you talk a bit about your background and how you began volunteering with the American Lung Association?
Denise Lee: I am a 61-year-old woman, born and raised in the Midwest, but have been living in California since 1986. I started smoking when I was 14. I thought it would help me lose weight. Before no time, though, I was addicted to nicotine. I tried several times to quit smoking. Honestly, it was the hardest thing I ever did. I was finally successful in April 2018, less than a year before I was diagnosed.
As a lung cancer survivor, I began volunteering by signing up as a mentor through Imerman Angels. That organization really helped me when I was first diagnosed. A lung cancer diagnosis is tough. I wanted to do something to help people who were newly diagnosed just as I was helped.
SC: What was it about your personal experience that motivated you to get involved in raising awareness for lung cancer screenings?
DL: My lung cancer was diagnosed thanks to an Ad Council campaign for early detection, SavedByTheScan.org. I saw a billboard by the side of the road. Early detection saved my life, so I was motivated to spread the word in the hopes that others like me would know about the low-dose CT scan for early detection and talk to their doctor about getting screened. I knew lung cancer was typically diagnosed after it had spread, thus making it harder to treat and outcomes could be less favorable. Honestly, I just wanted to use my voice and story to get people screened.
SC: What can others do to help raise awareness for lung cancer, how can they encourage those who are eligible to get screened?
DL: When I was first diagnosed, I contacted all my friends who were current or ex-smokers and told them about low-dose CT scan. Most of them have gotten the scan. Those who have not, I'm still working on them.
The best way to raise awareness is to spread the word and share your experience. This isn't just limited to survivors, though. Families and loved ones of survivors are a good resource as well. I think there is a stigma attached to lung cancer which can make it harder to talk about and confront. Unfortunately, though, that can make people reluctant to share their experiences. No one deserves cancer.
SC: As a survivor and advocate, what kind of advice do you have for those looking to take action on issues that they care about and/or have impacted them?
DL: There are always organizations that could use help. Organizations are always looking for volunteers. I started out as a mentor: a survivor that newly diagnosed patients could talk to and share experiences with. Five years later, I've become more involved in the lung cancer community. I participate in panel discussions, survivor groups, meeting with people about funding for cancer research, participating in lung cancer surveys, and more. Just get involved and never, ever say no! Your participation or advocacy might reach the right person at the right time.
SC: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
DL: The best advice I ever received was from my oncologist. I'd had surgery, completed chemotherapy, finished a year of immunotherapy and there was nothing left for me to do except come back every six months for my scan. After it was all over, I asked my oncologist, "Now what do I do?" He said, "Go out and live your life." Best. Advice. Ever!