By Karen E. Arscott, D.O. – president, PA Lung
Gene Gallagher commanded attention, no matter the circumstance. Loquacious, friendly and loyal, the World War II veteran was well known in his adopted hometown of Clarks Summit, where he spent most of his married life with his bride, Lois.
I came to meet and know Gene, a Scranton native, well after his wife of 64 years died from lung cancer in 2014. He joined our little nonprofit organization, PA Lung, as a way of honoring and remembering her life and the many others touched by the disease. His goal was to raise public awareness, but he also worked with us to let others know they were not alone in their struggle. His friendship, in a word, was inspirational.
Our friend passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic and our organization was unable to thank him properly for his friendship and service. PA Lung’s 10th annual candlelight (flashlights) Shine A Light Vigil for Lung Cancer Awareness Month will honor his memory and the more than 135,000 people who die each year from lung cancer on Friday, Nov. 5 from 6-7 p.m.
In addition to the lights, PA Lung volunteers will erect 1,350 symbolic white flags on the Lackawanna County Courthouse Square lawn – each representing 100 people who will die this year from lung cancer. Among the flags, a photo montage featuring Gene and Lois and others affected by the disease will play on a video. The faces will represent moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, and friends and neighbors who have this common bond. The Wally Gordon Trio will join us in song for the evening.
Our flags on the courthouse lawn will serve as a daily reminder for passers-by until the end of National Lung Cancer Awareness month. They will flap in the wind and weather the elements from fall and the coming of winter. The most noticeable aspect of the program, though, will be hidden behind the numbers and colors.
I recently returned to my roots and joined The Wright Center for Community Health as a primary care physician and addiction medicine specialist. The regional nonprofit is sponsoring this year’s program, which will feature 200 less flags thanks to the increase in survival rates. We will also add 400 blue flags to the display for the first time, acknowledging survivors and the impact increased screening has had on survival rates.
Small cell and non-small cell lung cancer remain the second most common cancer in men and women, according to the American Cancer Society, and the leading cause of cancer death – making up almost 25% of cancer-related deaths. Although the incidence rate of lung cancer has increased in recent years, the national death rate has declined from about 160,000 annually to about 135,000.
My sister, Linda Sacco, and I co-founded PA Lung after I successfully beat lung cancer for the second time. We envisioned a nonprofit that would share the most current information available, provide a necessary support system and work to lift the stigma associated with the disease through education.
After all, lung cancer is not limited to smokers or people who lead an unhealthy lifestyle. Doctors, as well as nonclinical members of society, do not have a complete understanding of the root cause of the disease. At the time of my first diagnosis in 2006, for example, lung cancer in women who had never smoked was on the rise, comprising almost 20% of all living cancer patients. What began as trouble using my right hand, for me, became a long cancer journey.
I was floored when the first nodule they discovered was diagnosed as stage 1A cancer. It resulted in the removal of a segment of the upper lobe of my right lung. Sixteen months later, the metastatic cancer returned to the middle of my chest.
Prior to my second surgery – which removed the remainder of my right upper lobe along with lymph nodes on the right side and middle of my chest, I completed 15 weeks of chemotherapy. Another eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation followed surgery until I completed the regiment in December 2007.
At the time of my second diagnosis, I was given a 9-14% chance of living five years. Today, I am a statistical anomaly. I finished four marathons as a walker in Philadelphia and Scranton, eight half-marathons in Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island, completed a fellowship to become an addiction medicine specialist, and returned to my roots in medicine at The Wright Center’s Hawley and Mid Valley practices.
Lung Cancer Awareness Month holds a different meaning for many. Along my cancer journey, I gained strength from family, friends, colleagues – and with those I shared a similar diagnosis. Their faces from PA Lung remain vivid, serving as motivation to continue this effort every day of the year.
Despite the positive statistical trends, more work remains. Our organization knows that more people need to understand the importance of screening for lung cancer. And, we work tirelessly to empower those with the disease and their family members who fight alongside them to not feel powerless and instead prepare to win their fight.
Karen E. Arscott, D.O.,M.Sc. , a two-time lung cancer survivor, is a co-founder and president of PA Lung, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness, provides support, and works to reduce the stigma associated with the disease. For more information about PA Lung, call 570-342-8874.