Elmhurst lung cancer patient fights to beat the odds

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 1:12 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 4:54 p.m. CDT

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ELMHURST – An Elmhurst woman is turning her stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis into thousands of dollars in donations for research and endless advocacy instead of an excuse to quit.

“This is something that everybody needs to hear,” said Susan Warmerdam, who said she wanted to share her story in order to help others.

Warmerdam, 48, continues to work full time and live as normal a life as possible while taking every opportunity she gets to raise awareness that even young, healthy women like herself are at risk.

According to the American Lung Association’s (ALA) website, lung cancer is the most deadly form of cancer, and more than half of those with the disease die within one year of diagnosis.

About 18 months after her life-changing diagnosis, Warmerdam, who said she never smoked, refuses to let the odds win. Because she experienced no warning signs except for a persistent cough that came and went, she wasn’t diagnosed until her cancer had reached an advanced stage. Her doctor told her the cancerous mass in her lungs might have been there for five years before she was diagnosed.

According to the ALA’s website, only 15 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage.

While her father, a former smoker, died from lung cancer in 1999 less than a year after his diagnosis, Warmerdam’s cancer tested positive for a particular gene mutation (EGFR) which her father didn’t have. To this day she’s still not sure what caused her cancer, but she does everything she can to find out.

Last September, she raised $40,000 at the ALA Fight for Air Walk with the help of her 80 teammates. Since then, she’s partnered with the ALA to put that money into a fund called the Team Susan Research Award, which will use 100 percent of those funds toward lung cancer research for people who have never smoked.

She’s subsequently raised $3,000 through a lung cancer walk in her hometown of Rochester, N.Y., and another $16,000 when she participated in the Fight for Air Climb at Chicago’s Presidential Towers in March.

“I was just hoping to do one of the four towers,” Warmerdam said.

Instead, she climbed all 2,340 steps in all four towers in 44 minutes and 14 seconds.

Her goal is to raise another $40,000 at this year’s Fight for Air Walk and ultimately have $100,000 in her research award. Warmerdam said that would be enough to fund a viable research project for one year.

Currently, she’s on an experimental drug that she started taking as part of a clinical trial. Warmerdam explained that the body eventually builds up a resistance to the drug and stops responding to it after an average of 12 months. The drug has been keeping her cancer stable for 17.

Just two months ago, her feline companion of 13 years, Angel, died of the same disease Warmerdam is battling. It reminded her that while she’s beating the odds, she still fights for her life every day. She wears two white wristbands, the color for lung cancer, as another reminder.

“I wear one for me,” she said. “I wear one for everybody else who suffers from the disease.”

She gave a speech to her team at last year’s walk. She didn’t say it, but the whole time she thought it was her goodbye speech. She’s noticed the rush of support she felt last year start to dwindle, and Warmerdam wants to make sure people know she’s still fighting for herself every day and for everyone who may one day find themselves in her position.

“I can still fight for all the people I care about,” Warmerdam said. “I’m just one person. I can’t do this on my own, and I need everybody to help me.”

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