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Lompoc ‘Shines a Light on Lung Cancer’

Fifth annual event spotlights the fact that even nonsmokers can get lung cancer

Kathi Downey is carrying on the message her sister once fought to spread: No one deserves lung cancer, which doesn’t only strike smokers.

Downey’s sister, Mary Anne Rios, died Jan. 11 at age 56, after a nearly four-year battle with lung cancer. 

She never smoked.

The former Lompoc High School counselor was diagnosed with incurable adenocarcinoma in August 2010. She was forced to medically retire in 2011 and became an outspoken advocate for ending the stigma associated with lung cancer. 

“People with lung cancer deserve to be treated with compassion,” Downey said. “She was treated poorly, many times because people assumed she smoked.”

Rios, 56, hosted the "Lompoc Shine a Light on Lung Cancer" for four years, and Downey carried on the mission and message Thursday night at the Lompoc Elks Lodge, where visitors could purchase white bracelets noting, “Lung cancer: Smoking not required.” At each table sat several teal bracelets reading, "End the stigma."

Councilwoman Ashley Costa served as mistress of ceremonies, explaining her personal connection. Lung cancer claimed the life of her grandmother, “an amazing and inspiring woman” Costa looked up in every way but one — her smoking.

Yet in 2010, Costa learned her friend and mentor, Rios, also had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

“A little perplexed, I quickly learned that lung cancer doesn’t discriminate against those who don’t smoke and that anyone, regardless of tobacco use, is at risk,” Costa said. “I had fallen victim to the stigma of lung cancer and felt regretful that I hadn’t done more to support my grandmother or done enough to spread the word because nobody deserves to die of cancer.”

lung cancer
Teal-colored bracelets carry the message "End the Stigma" to get rid of the attitude that lung cancer only afflicts smokers and that people diagnosed with lung cancer deserve it. (Janene Scully /Noozhawk photo)

Costa thanked Rios for working to clear up the misperceptions about lung cancer.

“It is our job to ensure that her legacy lives on,” Costa added.

Approximately 200 people attended the event held in partnership with the Lung Cancer Alliance, which has noted that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

While a history of smoking is the main risk factor for developing lung cancer, nearly 80 percent of those diagnosed today are never smokers or are former smokers who quit decades ago, the organization said.

Ken Wheatley, co-director of the California chapter of Lung Cancer Alliance, spoke along with Jamie Chai, whose mother Susan Ellement, a 36-year resident of Lompoc, is battling cancer.

Ellement was a smoker, and thought she deserved cancer, her daughter said.

“My mom, at one time, believed in the stigma,” Chai said, adding that Rios helped her fellow lung cancer sufferer recognize that lung cancer doesn’t discriminate and that no one deserves it.

Despite her smoking background, Ellement had trouble convincing doctors to suspect lung cancer, and Chai urged people to act as their own advocates in pushing for tests to seek out a diagnosis for a medical ailment.

In her sister’s memory, Downey said she is working to build a community of lung cancer patients and their families.

“No one deserves lung cancer. No one should have to take the journey by themselves,” Downey added. 

Another event, the Buck Away Lung Cancer Walk, to raise awareness for lung cancer is planned for 6 p.m. Saturday. Participants are urged to wear white to “white out” Lompoc. The walk will start at Branded Salon, Barbershop and Boutique, 113 North I St., Suite H, and travel to Montemar Winery, 1501 E. Chestnut Court, Suite E.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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