Human Interest Archive 2013

Lung Power Team

Brian IsraelPaula Gaspardo
Alissa Hodgson
 Lauren Masi
 Christopher Nolan
 Jason Sippel

Brian runs for his hero and former teacher, 'Coach'

Brian IsraelWhen Brian Israel was a student at Blue Valley High School, his hero was a popular teacher and coach, Greg House, known as just "Coach" to athletes and classmates alike.

Coach excelled as a leader in the sports arena. He won 20 state titles as the head coach at three different Blue Valley high schools and was assistant football coach at Blue Valley when the team won the state title. He also excelled in reaching students in the classroom, and taught psychology and a law strand at the Blue Valley CAPS program.

"Coach was the type of teacher they make movies about," Brian said. "He was the teacher who motivated you by giving you a hard time, but made it abundantly clear that few things in the world were more important to him than you.

"He wasn't just a teacher who was going to read the lesson the night before we did, he really knew his stuff," Brian continued. "He taught with stories, and being in his class was almost too enjoyable for school."

Brian admits that when he was a senior he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. No one knew how to knock it off like Coach.

"Coach motivated me, and the joke was that one day when I was in shape we would have some sort of fundraising wrestling match," Brian said. "In his late 50s, Coach was probably the healthiest guy I knew. Myths circulated around the locker room that this guy was deadlifting 400 pounds without thinking twice. I thought he would outlive me. I thought the guy was invincible."

Brian, like most students, moved away from Coach but never forgot about him. Several years later, in August of 2011, hundreds of those former students were devastated when they heard the bad news: just four months after Coach had been diagnosed with lung cancer, he passed away. He was 61.

"I remember hearing that and choking back tears as I realized someone who seemed far stronger than me was out of my life," Brian said.

Coach's former players and students of all ages mourned the lost, and many chose to share stories or do something in Coach's memory. Months later, something Coach once shared with Brian popped into his head.

"Coach had told me that when his wife was going through treatments for cancer he would run six miles every day just to try to feel her suffering," Brian said. "After Coach passed, I thought that would be a solid way to commemorate him."

Brian will pay tribute to his teacher by running in the San Diego Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon on June 2 as part of Respiratory Health Association's Lung Power Team. Lung Power Team athletes participate in races nationwide, and many are personally affected by lung disease. Each Lung Power Team member raises funds to support lung disease research and programs.

"When I was coach's student many years ago, I never would have imagined that I could run a half marathon, but coach didn't believe in ‘can't' and neither do I," Brian said. "I'm in the best shape of my life and ready to run for Coach. More than that, I'm ready to run for everybody's ‘Coach.' For everyone who had a mentor, friend or teacher who they thought was invincible - but lost the hard fight to lung cancer - I'm running for them."

For more information or to support Brian's efforts, visit


Paula will run her first marathon for her mom

Paula GaspardoPaula Gaspardo, an Orland Park resident, has run several half-marathons before, but she has never attempted the full race. This October, Paula will run 26 miles of the Chicago Marathon in memory of her mother, who passed away from lung cancer in 2009. She is participating as part of Respiratory Health Association's Lung Power Team, a group of athletes who run to raise funds and awareness for local lung disease research and programs.

"I know it's going to be hard, but I thought, 'What a great way to make myself run in my first marathon,' " Paula said. "I'll raise funds for an association I have a deep connection to."

Paula's mother had what she described as a "smoker's cough" for many years. Doctors initially diagnosed her with bronchitis, and later with emphysema. In 2007, her mother was found to have late-stage, inoperable cancer

"My mother lived in Australia, so I traveled there to be with her when she was doing her chemotherapy and radiation treatments," Paula said. "I'm lucky to have had more than two years with her in the end."

Paula also feels lucky that her children grew close with their grandmother during her visits to America and theirs to Australia.

"My kids and I still talk about nanna all of the time, and I'm very open about why she passed away," Paula said. "They've become aware of the harm smoking can do to a person."

Paula's goal in running the Chicago Marathon goes beyond completing the race. She is raising funds for Respiratory Health Association programs that are close to her heart, such as smoking cessation courses and tobacco prevention. The association also currently funds several researchers who are studying better ways to treat non-small cell lung cancer patients. Paula hopes that her efforts will help others, particularly her children, learn about the dangers of tobacco.

"Since my kids aren't exposed to smoking in their personal lives, they're always very alarmed to see someone with a cigarette," Paula said. "If they point it out, I'm honest and say, 'They're putting poison in their bodies.' "

Athletes can still join Respiratory Health Association in its mission. The Lung Power Team has a limited number of spots left in the sold out Chicago Marathon. Runners may also register with the team for a race of their choice.

For more information on the Lung Power Team or to support Paula's efforts, visit


Woman runs in unity with other athletes, for brother-in-law

Alissa HodgsonFor Alissa Hodgson of Highland Park, the decision to make this year's Bank of America Chicago Marathon her first full marathon run couldn't carry more meaning. She will be running with Respiratory Health Association's Lung Power Team in response to the bombing at the Boston Marathon, in which a family member participated.

As an avid runner of 5Ks and half-marathons, Alissa always said that someday she'd complete 26 miles. But with a full-time job and daughter, she always found reasons to put it off. After her sister participated in the Boston Marathon last April, however, she knew there were no more excuses. That day, a bomb explosion at the finish line killed three people and injured 260.

"It was a very harrowing day because [here in Chicago] we didn't know what was going on," Alissa said. "So when I got the Lung Power Team email several days later, I knew it was the right time to sign up. As runners, we should stick together."

The Boston Marathon isn't Alissa's only inspiration for running in the Chicago Marathon. Alissa joined Lung Power Team in memory of her brother-in-law, Charles Stine, who passed away from lung cancer in 2010.

"When my brother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer in January of 2008, it was a shock to all of us because he was very healthy otherwise," Alissa said. "When you see how cancer affects a person firsthand, you realize how devastating it can be. I want to run in memory of him and to honor my sister, his widow, and his daughter."

Like other Lung Power Team members, Alissa is raising funds and awareness for lung and respiratory illnesses. She has committed to raising $950 to put towards local lung disease research and programs.

Athletes can still join Respiratory Health Association in its mission. The Lung Power Team has a limited number of spots left in the sold out Chicago Marathon. For more information on the Lung Power Team or to support Alissa's efforts, visit


Runner completing first marathon in memory of AJ

Lauren Masi

When Chicago resident Lauren Masi signed up for her first full marathon, she wanted to run with a purpose. She joined Respiratory Health Association's Lung Power Team to compete in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and raise funds and awareness for Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs. She is also running in memory of her boyfriend's brother, who passed away from an asthma episode in 2005.

Lauren has long had a passion for running and recently began pushing herself to cover even longer distances. She also wants to bring awareness to the need for more research and treatments for lung disease. Marrying the two, Lauren decided to run 26 miles in memory of her boyfriend Matt's brother, AJ Hein.

"AJ had a severe asthma episode when he was 16, and unfortunately no one was home," Lauren said. "His mom was out picking up his prescription for asthma medication, and by the time she made it back, it was too late."

Lauren knows their family is not alone in heartbreaking situations like this. Sometimes, families may not have the knowledge or tools they need to manage their loved one's asthma. To help address this, Lauren has committed to raising $1,000 toward Respiratory Health Association's programs such as asthma education. These include Asthma Management and Fight Asthma Now©, which teaches children and teens how to identify and avoid asthma triggers, how to manage asthma episodes and how to control asthma on a long-term basis.

"I am running so that kids like AJ get the education, healthcare and support they need to live healthy and active lives," Lauren said.

Lauren knows what it feels like to not be able to breathe or to be left out of activities because she has mild asthma. She is grateful that in her mid-20s she's learned to manage it so that she can be part of something like the Lung Power Team in memory of AJ.

"Asthma has sometimes held me back in accomplishing my running goals," Lauren said, "but by adopting healthy habits and training well, I am confident that I can do it!"

Athletes can still join Respiratory Health Association in its mission. The Lung Power Team has a limited number of spots left in the sold-out Chicago Marathon. Runners may also register with the team for a race of their choice. For more information on the Lung Power Team or to support Lauren's efforts, visit


Man running in Chicago Marathon to honor his mother

Christopher NolanIn October, Christopher Nolan will run in his first full marathon with Respiratory Health Association's Lung Power Team to raise funds and awareness for lung disease research and programs. Christopher is running in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in honor of his mother, Nancy, whose life changed drastically two years ago when she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In 2011, Nancy suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital for two weeks. Christopher said he anxiously stayed by her side, "worried she wouldn't pull through." Fortunately, Nancy recovered from her heart attack, but hospital tests revealed larger health issues that had previously gone undiagnosed. For years, she had experienced a shortness of breath that prevented her from even walking short distances without needing to stop and rest. Doctors had previously diagnosed her with asthma, but the tests after her heart attack revealed it was actually severe COPD.

When Christopher heard his mom had COPD, he was suspicious. COPD is a chronic, progressive and incurable lung disease that causes difficulty breathing and shortness of breath; it is commonly associated with chronic bronchitis and emphysema. This was the first time doctors had mentioned anything to Christopher or his mother about this disease.

"You don't just one day develop severe COPD and have doctors tell you that your lungs are shot," Christopher said. "My mom and I are typically very close and share everything with each other, but I still asked her, ‘Have you not been telling me everything?' "

That was not the case. Like many undiagnosed COPD patients, Nancy hadn't even been aware that her symptoms could suggest the possibility of COPD. The disease affects 24 million Americans, but as many as half do not know they have it. Because the term has only entered common usage in recent years, many patients like Nancy do not know how to talk to their doctors about their symptoms or the best way to move forward with treatment.

"COPD is life-changing," Christopher said. "The day we returned from the hospital, a health care provider came to put oxygen in the house, and my mom had to explain to them she's never had it before. She learns something new about living with COPD every day."

Christopher was inspired to go into health care management after seeing the obstacles his mom faces because of COPD, such as shortness of breath doing day-to-day tasks and difficulty coordinating her overall care. In May, he earned his Master of Public Administration in Health Policy and Management from New York University's Wagner School, and he recently moved to Chicago to pursue an administrative fellowship at Rush University Medical Center. He also joined Respiratory Health Association's Lung Power Team to help prevent other people from going through experiences similar to his mom's.

"Training for a marathon has been a good challenge for me physically, and I'm raising funds for a phenomenal organization," Christopher said. "Respiratory Health Association is all about efforts to prevent smoking, improve air quality and understand why certain populations are affected by respiratory diseases at higher rates than others."

Christopher has pledged to raise $1,200 for Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs, many of which improve the quality of life for people like his mother. For more information on the Lung Power Team click here.


Chicago man to run for people affected by lung disease

Jason_SippelJust a few years ago, Jason Sippel graduated from running a one-mile warm-up to a six-mile workout. At the time, he didn't think of running as a passion as much as exercise. However, running sparked something inside him. In October, Jason will run his second Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Respiratory Health Association's Lung Power Team.

Lung Power Team is a group of athletes who receive special training perks for the marathon or a race of their choice and commit to raising $1,000 for Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs. Jason was inspired to join the team after he saw other charity teams at last year's marathon.

"When I first started running, I pushed myself to go farther and farther because I was blown away by what my body could do," Jason said. "I think marathons are great for people like me who used to play on team sports, and now push themselves as an individual. A charity team will give me the support I need during my run."

Jason also joined Respiratory Health Association's team for a more personal reason. He was diagnosed with asthma as a child, and at times his asthma episodes were so bad that he had to go to the hospital. As he grew older, he learned how to manage his asthma by avoiding his triggers and taking his inhaler at the appropriate time. Jason's run will help raise money in part for children who need to do the same. Respiratory Health Association offers several free or low-cost asthma education programs that help youth and their caregivers understand how to manage their asthma. 

"Lung Power Team supports programs and research for children who have asthma and for other people living with lung diseases," Jason said. "I'm excited to run for them." 

Athletes can still join Respiratory Health Association in its mission. The Lung Power Team has a limited number of spots left in the sold out Chicago Marathon. For more information on the Lung Power Team or to support Jason's efforts, visit


Hike for Lung Health

      ARDS Foundation
Howard Back in Time


ARDS Foundation co-founder remembers her sister at Hike

On Sunday, Sept. 22, more than 700 supporters of local lung health charities joined together at Lincoln Park to participate in Respiratory Health Association's Hike for Lung Health. Hike, a one- or three-mile walk through Chicago's Lincoln Park, benefits 11 organizations that support lung disease research, education programs and advocacy work.

One Hike participant was Elgin resident Paula Blonski, co-founder of the ARDS Foundation. Paula and her family walk in memory of her sister, Marybeth Monaghen, who in 1998 was diagnosed with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). ARDS is the inflammation of lung tissue that results in the loss of lung function.

When Marybeth was diagnosed, Paula had never even heard of ARDS. Even her research on the Internet yielded few results. "ARDS affects 2.2 million people worldwide, yet there was virtually nothing online about it," Paula said.

Marybeth passed away after a 13-week battle with ARDS at the age 36. When she lost her sister, Paula and her family became passionate about making information about ARDS available to more people.

"I co-founded the ARDS Foundation with Eileen a survivor so that all people affected by it - the survivors and families whose loved ones didn't make it would have someone to talk to," Paula said.

Supporters of the ARDS Foundation attend Hike for Lung Health every year, and join hundreds of other walkers who are affected by many types of lung disease. Another team, "Mar's Sob Squad," walks in honor of Maryann, who has pulmonary fibrosis and recently received a lung transplant. The "Howard Back in Time" team walks in honor of 5-year-old Carter, who has asthma. Hike offers an option for the more than 1.1 million people in Chicagoland who are affected by lung disease.

"I'm truly grateful to Respiratory Health Association for bringing all of these people together," Paula said.

For more information about Hike for Lung Health or to help participants reach their $100,000 fundraising goal, visit


Board member walks to honor families affected by lung disease

Monique Howard with Brad and Carter after her
Skyline Plunge! Chicago rappel in 2011.

In 2011, Monique Howard of Northbrook rappelled 278 feet down theWit Hotel as part of Respiratory Health Association's Skyline Plunge! Chicago. She took the brave step over the edge in honor of her then-two-year-old son Carter, whose asthma had sent him to the emergency department several times. The Howards have a history with lung disease (Monique and her husband, Brad, also have asthma) and it terrified them to see their toddler struggle with it.

Two years later, Monique can confidently drop Carter off at preschool and watch him run around like most children his age. His asthma is better managed, and he has learned what to do if he does have an asthma episode.

"Luckily Carter's at an age that's he's starting to understand how asthma affects him," Monique said. "I used to have to physically restrain him from playing when he was having an asthma episode, but now he knows to sit down when he can't breathe and not get up until he can say a full sentence to me."

This Sunday, the Howards will walk in Respiratory Health Association's Hike for Lung Health, a one- or three-mile walk in Lincoln Park. The walk benefits 11 local lung health charities. The Howard's team, "Howard Back in Time," is walking to honor Respiratory Health Association's lung disease education programs, research and advocacy work.

"We came to the Association through asthma, but we've learned about many other lung diseases over the years," Monique said. "I've become more passionate about issues such as clean and air and what we can do to help the people it affects - my son included - to live a healthier life."

Monique said she is humbled each time she attends a Respiratory Health Association event. The more she learns about respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ARDS, the more she understands just how many people are affected. In Chicagoland, 1.1 million people are affected by lung disease.

"We want to take part in Respiratory Health Association events to help people who may not have access to the health care they need to treat and understand their illness," Monique said. "Hike is a way to get the whole family involved."

Donate to "Howard Back in Time" or learn more about Respiratory Health Association's Hike for Lung Health at


September Skyline Plunge! Chicago

Michelle Defer Kari Ross
Jerry Seiling Sally Szablewiski


Michelle will bravely honor many people affected by lung disease

Michelle DeferWhen Michelle Defer rappels 27 stories down theWit Hotel on September 8, she'll be getting an adrenaline rush while also remembering her grandmother. Michelle is participating in Skyline Plunge! Chicago, an urban rappel adventure hosted by Respiratory Health Association to raise funds and awareness for respiratory disease research and programs.

Skyline Plunge! Chicago attracts more than 80 participants, the majority of whom have been personally affected by respiratory disease. Michelle initially signed up for Skyline Plunge! Chicago in memory of her grandmother, Jacqueline Defer, who passed away from lung cancer when she was a teenager. As word of Michelle's rappel spread, her reason for participating grew bigger.

"On event day, I'm wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘I Rappel For: Jacqueline Defer,'" said Michelle, a Gilberts resident. "To help me reach my fundraising goal, I've told friends and family that when they donate in memory or honor of their loved ones affected by lung disease, I'll add their name to my shirt."

People have been grateful for Michelle's efforts and given her names of their family and friends affected by respiratory illnesses. She quickly surpassed her $1,200 fundraising goal and is continuing to accept donations and names of people for her T-shirt. She wants to raise as much as she can to support Respiratory Health Association's programs that include smoking cessation, asthma education and social events for people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"I remember how quickly my grandmother's health declined when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and I want to stop other families from experiencing that," Michelle said. "Participating in Skyline Plunge is one more way I can raise awareness for respiratory health."

To support Michelle in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit her fundraising page. Learn more and register for Skyline Plunge! Chicago at


Valparaiso native to rappel in support of respiratory health

Kari Ross
Kari Ross with Will, one of her
inspirations to take the plunge.

When Kari Ross, a Valparaiso native, told her family that she was going to rappel 27 stories of theWit Hotel in downtown Chicago, no one was surprised. The 24-year-old has already done her fair share of thrill seeking, including sky diving and ice and rock climbing from as high as 400 feet. The heights have made her stomach flip, but participating in Skyline Plunge! Chicago will be the adventure that touches Kari's heart.

Skyline Plunge! Chicago is hosted by Respiratory Health Association to raise funds and awareness for respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Many of the 85 people who will participate in the rappel event on September 8 have been affected by respiratory illnesses. Kari is rappelling because when she was a young girl, her grandfather was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer. Kari believes his work environment within the Chicagoland mills was the main cause of his illness.

"My grandfather worked in the mills his whole life, the same as my uncles and father," Kari said. "I want to rappel for them, and for other union men and women dealing with respiratory issues. My main goal is to raise awareness for all kinds of lung health."

Kari was a preteen when her grandfather passed away from the cancer. Although she remembers his struggle with the disease, it wasn't until she was in college that she realized just how much a respiratory disease can affect a person every day. She nannied for four years for a boy with asthma. Will is her other inspiration for taking the plunge.

"When most kids get winded, they can rest and then just continue to keep going," Kari said. "For Will, if we weren't careful, getting winded could result in an asthma attack that could kill him."

On Kari's rappel day she will be joined by friends and family cheering her on at the breathtaking event. She hopes going down the side of a building in the Loop will raise lots of awareness for Respiratory Health Association's mission.

"Not everyone understands how much people living with respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, COPD or asthma struggle," Kari said. "These diseases can be debilitating, and I want to help others breathe easier."

For more information about Skyline Plunge! Chicago or to support Kari's fundraising efforts, visit


Jerry rappels to commemorate 22 smoke-free years

Jerry SeilingJerry Seiling's first attempt to quit smoking 25 years ago was a testament to just how addictive nicotine can be. He'd smoked since he was a teenager, back when the habit was more prevalent. By the time Jerry was in his 40s, the Palatine resident was up to three-and-half packs a day.

"I had to almost make an effort to smoke that much," Jerry said. "I'd pick up one cigarette, set it down to do something, then immediately light up another."

Jerry knew if he didn't want his children to follow his unhealthy example, he'd have to cut cigarettes from his life. He was smoke-free for almost two years before he allowed himself just one cigarette. Unfortunately, one turned into two, and soon he was back to smoking several packs a day. A few months later, he wanted to try quitting again - this time with modifications to his lifestyle. He used the money he would have otherwise spent on cigarettes to start taekwondo lessons and avoided his triggers such as caffeine and alcohol.

"It was extremely hard because my body was not only withdrawing from nicotine, but also caffeine," Jerry said. "After one year, it became easier not to want a cigarette. I was grateful to finally be free of my addiction and knew I wouldn't go back this time."

Twenty-two years later, Jerry still feels proud of himself for overcoming his nicotine dependence. To honor his decision to go smoke-free, he will soon celebrate in a big way. On September 8, he will rappel 27 stories of theWit Hotel in downtown Chicago during Respiratory Health Association's Skyline Plunge! Chicago.

"Going down the side of a building is my way to commemorate when I quit smoking," Jerry said. "I'm elated to participate, and I'm excited to do something to keep young people from picking up the habit."

Skyline Plunge! Chicago raises funds and awareness for Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs. Local efforts include asthma education, smoking cessation and social events for people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They're all close to Jerry's heart.

"I get concerned when I see young people smoking, but it's hard to get them to think about the future of their health," Jerry said. "We need more education and cessation classes, which is something Respiratory Health Association provides."

Jerry has pledged a fundraising minimum of $1,000. For more information about Skyline Plunge! Chicago or to support his fundraising efforts, visit

Woman rappelling to show she overcame lung disease

Sally to also take the plunge in honor those who haven't

Sally and daughters 
Sally and her daughters have learned to manage
their asthma to take part in all they want to do.

When she was a child, Sally Szablewiski considered Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago her second home. She and her brother had asthma and were often in the emergency room for asthma treatments. Sally usually shared a room with half a dozen other children; there, she learned just how many people are affected by lung disease.

"I remember sharing the room once with a boy who had cystic fibrosis," Sally said. "A nurse would come in every hour and pat him on the back to break up the mucus. Even then I thought, ‘It could be worse. I'm lucky.'"

Even though Sally's asthma was relatively controlled, it still kept her from doing things she loved, such as competing in athletics or having a furry pet. However, due to her early exposure to hospitals, this Naperville resident chose to become an emergency room nurse at Edward Hospital. She particularly relates to the families who come in with a look of fear because a loved one's respiratory disease is causing difficulty breathing. It's a look she's been familiar with all of her life - not just because of her asthma, but because of family members also affected by lung disease.

"My father-in-law battled lung cancer, and my husband's cousin is living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)," Sally said. "My two daughters and nephew also have asthma, but thanks to advances in medicine and an increased understanding of lung disease, they have never felt left out because of it."
As Sally got older, she also was no longer left out of the things she loved.

"I'm not afraid of asthma because I learned what to do to stay one step ahead of it, whether it's use my inhaler or go to the hospital," Sally said over the phone on the way to her workout.

Sally and her daughters have learned to control their asthma effectively, but not all lung diseases can be controlled so easily. Several months ago, Sally was reminded of this when she read her niece's Facebook post. "It's tough watching your father struggle to take a breath," her niece wrote about her father, who lives with COPD, a respiratory disease commonly associated with chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The post motivated Sally to get involved with a charity that supports other people living with lung disease. She signed up for Skyline Plunge! Chicago, an urban rappel adventure hosted by Respiratory Health Association.

On September 8, Sally will rappel 27 stories of theWit Hotel in honor of anyone who's affected by lung disease. More than 85 people will participate in the event with a fundraising goal of $85,000. Funds raised support Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs.

"Years ago the diagnosis of lung disease such as lung cancer was a death sentence, but it doesn't have to be like that anymore," Sally said. "I thought the Skyline Plunge would be neat to do not just as a thrill-seeker, but as a health care professional, an asthmatic and to honor family members living with lung disease."

Sally's breathtaking rappel will also serve as a testament to how much she's learned since being diagnosed with asthma. That, and the fact that she finally got the pets she always wanted. Two hypoallergenic standard poodles are now part of Sally's family.

For more information about Skyline Plunge! Chicago or to support Sally's fundraising efforts, visit


CowaLUNGa Bike Tour

Janice Donald
Tom & Marissa Rentner
Tony Sharpe 


Woman bikes her first CowaLUNGa in memory of her husband

Janice Donald and family

Janice's husband, Bruce, was her and
her son's biggest supporter, she said.

When Janice Donald left her house the morning of February 14, 2012, she was looking forward to enjoying a Valentine's Day dinner with her husband, Bruce. But instead of returning home that night to celebrate, the couple ended up in the hospital. Bruce had suffered a seizure, which was later revealed to have been caused by stage IV lung cancer.

"I will never get over the fact that I left for work in the morning with what I thought was a healthy husband," Janice said. "He never got sick, he never coughed, never had sore throat and was never short of breath. He had quit smoking more than 20 years ago and never showed any signs of lung cancer, yet it had already metastasized."

A lack of symptoms is something all too familiar to many lung cancer patients. Just as in Bruce's case, the disease is often diagnosed in the late stages. By stage IV the five-year survival rate is very low - less than 2 percent. However, Bruce, who Janice describes as "the most optimistic husband on the face of the planet," wouldn't let that keep him down.

Despite his optimism, Bruce's health was deteriorating fast. Within the first month of his diagnosis, he got pneumonia, then cellulitis, and he was constantly in the hospital to treat all of his illnesses. Finally, his health stabilized, and he and Janice were able to focus on the Five Wishes living will document.

"Halfway through Five Wishes, Bruce looked at me and said, ‘Do you know something I don't know?'" Janice said. "I told him, ‘The doctor said he can treat it, but he can't cure it.' Still, we never mentioned death after that, and Bruce continued to get radiation and chemotherapy treatments."

Of course, Bruce wanted to make sure his wife could be taken care of by her family if one day he was unable. They were living in Chicago at the time of his diagnosis, and nine months later moved to Seattle to be close to Janice's family. After the move, Bruce seemed to finally be able to come to peace with his situation. His health declined rapidly and Janice was distraught when medicine did very little to ease his excruciating pain.

"The worst part of the entire thing was the pain I knew he was feeling," Janice said. "He was in such agony that I couldn't touch him and I couldn't hold him. All I could do was just place my hand on his, and that was what I was doing when he passed."

Bruce died on December 17, 2012, 17 days after he and his wife arrived in Seattle. He was 65. The following week, his family honored him by having Chicago-style hot dogs on his favorite holiday, Christmas. Then, in February, Janice participated in Hustle up the Hancock, a charity stair climb in Chicago hosted by Respiratory Health Association. The event raises funds and awareness for respiratory diseases such as lung cancer. It was Janice's third time participating - and the first without Bruce.

"I knew he wouldn't be at the event for me this time, and I cried several times going up the stairs," Janice said. "But I knew Bruce was my and my son's all-time champion, and he believed we could do anything. I set my goal of climbing 94 flights of stairs in less than 20 minutes, and I did it in 19."

The next goal Janice wants to reach in Bruce's memory is biking 190 miles in Respiratory Health Association's CowaLUNGa Bike Tour on August 3, 4 and 5. The charity bike ride goes through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

"Bruce and I talked about CowaLUNGa before he passed, and he was the one to say, ‘You can do it!'," Janice said. "Although I've never ridden a bike for three days, I chose to take this challenge because this is my way of saying, ‘You're right. I can do it, and you are my champion.' It's how I'm going to celebrate who he was, because he celebrated me and he celebrated our son."

Janice will ride CowaLUNGa with a friend from Chicago and take off from the start line in Gurnee, Ill., the morning of August 3. Janice has already raised more than $400 to support Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs. To offer her words of encouragement or support her fundraising, visit

Top of list

Father-daughter riding CowaLUNGa together for first time

Rentner familyIn 2007, Marissa Rentner thought her dream of becoming a music teacher was over. She was playing bassoon in a high school band competition when a sharp pain shot down her chest and back. Worried, she visited her doctor, who diagnosed her with asthma and advised her not to play the instrument until she learned how to monitor the disease. Her asthma was so severe that for the next five years, any activity that required heavy breathing was out of the question.

Marissa's diagnosis was a surprise her, but asthma was nothing new to this Elk Grove family. Marissa's mother and two siblings also have the lung disease, though Marissa's is far more severe. For more than 20 years, Tom and Rachele Rentner have had to pay special attention to their family's health.

"A lot of parents worry about their child catching a cold just because it puts them under the weather," Tom said, "but if someone in our family caught one, it could be very serious. Years ago, we removed all of the carpeting in our house because that can trap allergens that exacerbate asthma, and whenever we went on a family trip we always were sure to pack all the kids' inhalers."

Asthma affects 1 out of 10 children in the United States, and the prevalence rate has risen in recent years. The Rentners wanted to support a local organization that addresses this issue so close to their hearts, so they became involved with Respiratory Health Association. The association raises funds and awareness for programs and research that focus on asthma, as well as other respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When their children were younger, the Rentners participated in Hike for Lung Health, a 1- or 3-mile walk in Lincoln Park. Two years ago, Tom decided to take on a bigger challenge for lung health.

This August, Tom will for the third time ride 65 miles in CowaLUNGa Bike Tour, a one-, two- or three-day charity ride hosted by Respiratory Health Association. The full 190-mile route starts in Gurnee, Ill., and ends in Hubertus, Wisc.

"I like CowaLUNGa because as we ride, people drive by in their cars and in support while also learning what it is all about," Tom said. "Participating every year gives me a reason to talk about my kids' asthma."

For the last two years, Tom has ridden CowaLUNGa alone. This time, Marissa will join him for the 18-mile ride on Aug. 3. After years of testing different medicines, learning breathing techniques and following a weight plan, she's healthy enough to ride in CowaLUNGa and do much more.

"Last summer, Marissa couldn't even get up one of the hills in Busse Woods, so I would have told you there was no way she could do CowaLUNGa," Tom said. "But seeing her ride up that hill this year with no breathing problems makes me the proudest a parent could be of their child."

In addition to finally joining her father in CowaLUNGa, Marissa is excited to fulfill one more goal: She is a senior music education major at Elmhurst College and has mastered playing nearly every instrument in the band. She now uses playing instruments as a breathing exercise, saying she is happy no one ever let her quit.

"I used to be missing out on things I should have been able to do, but no one told me to give up on anything just because having asthma made it more difficult," Marissa said. "I'm happy to have learned how to control my asthma so I can pursue my dreams."

To offer her words of encouragement or support Marissa's fundraising for CowaLUNGa, visit

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Man riding in CowaLUNGa as a way to remember his mother

Tony Sharpe FamilyOn August 3 and 4, Tony Sharpe will push himself farther on his bike than he ever has before. He will ride 130 miles in CowaLUNGa Bike Tour, a charity ride hosted by Respiratory Health Association to raise funds and awareness for lung disease research and programs. Tony will ride through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin with 200 other bikers who are doing it for the challenge, for fun, or in honor or in memory of a loved one.

Many riders have been personally affected by lung disease. Although Tony was not, he is behind Respiratory Health Association's mission to promote healthy lungs and fight lung disease through research, advocacy and education. Tony will also be riding in memory of his mother, Bridget Struhs, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in December 2011. When she broke the news to her family, they vowed to do whatever they could to help, including accompanying her to her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

After 10 months of treatments, Bridget received good news: she had beat cancer. Her family was overjoyed, as evidenced in the picture on Tony's computer desktop. The photo captured him, his sister and nephews, and Bridget smiling widely during what was supposed to be Bridget's last chemotherapy treatment.

Bridget enjoyed her newfound health until January of 2013, when she visited her doctor about pain in her abdomen. After a few tests, her doctor told her the cancer had metastasized to her liver. She gathered her family together again to tell them the sad news.

"We said, ‘We fought it once, we can do it again,' " Tony recalled, choking up. "She had grandchildren she wanted to stick around for, but soon we could tell it got to be too much."

This time around, Bridget's body did not react well to her treatments. Each session of chemotherapy sent her to the hospital for days of blood and platelet transfusions. On March 26, Bridget brought her family together one last time to tell them she wanted to enjoy the time she had left without further treatments. Thirteen days later, she passed away.

Tony chose CowaLUNGa Bike Tour as a way to spend solitary time on his bike remembering his mother. Although he was not personally affected by lung disease, this will offer him a chance to ride alongside others who share his experience of losing a loved one to a chronic illness.

"People ask me if I'm doing the ride with anyone and I answer, ‘Yeah, with my mom,' " Tony said, adding he is going to tape her picture to his bike frame. "Cycling has become a cathartic activity for me since my mom got sick. I'm really looking forward to going on CowaLUNGa and reaching my goal."

Tony will ride in two days of the three-day CowaLUNGa Bike Tour and has set his fundraising goal at $1,000. The funds raised from CowaLUNGa support programs for lung diseases such as asthma, COPD and lung cancer. To offer Tony words of encouragement or support his fundraising, visit

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Asthma Awareness

 Sarah Cohen-Smith


Former Miss Wadsworth campaigns for respiratory health

Sarah Cohen-SmithSarah Cohen-Smith can vividly remember the day she learned just how serious asthma can be. Her school was holding a Turkey Trot on a breezy autumn afternoon and her elementary school-age brother started walking the three-mile race. It was an event that would be easy for most children his age, but for Joshua, it nearly turned deadly.

"All of the sudden someone tells me that my brother can't breathe and my parents were there to drive us to the emergency room," Sarah said. "On the way to the hospital, I sat in the backseat holding Joshua. As he was gasping for air he kept repeating, "I love you Sarah, I love you.'"

As Joshua's older sister, experiences like these scared Sarah tremendously but also provided fodder for her future aspirations. Sarah's grandfather, father and brother have all lived with asthma. Never one to let asthma stand in his way, Joshua wanted to be able to play trombone or run track just like his friends. Sarah took the lead in making sure that happened.

"I'm more cautious than my mom is sometimes," Sarah said. "I make sure he's not pushing himself too hard, that he always had a Benadryl and inhaler handy, and that he didn't go outside on days with high pollen counts."

Sarah often accompanied Joshua on visits to his allergist. Their mom, Carol Cohen-Smith, noticed Sarah's interest in the medical aspects of her brother's care. She helped her find a career path where she could serve others in a similar way.

"Sarah shadowed people in several professions and came back and told me she wanted to be a pharmacist," Carol said. "She started taking science classes during high school at College of Lake County to further educate herself and earn college credits." The more she learned, the more Sarah wanted to help spread her knowledge to other children with asthma or respiratory diseases.

Sarah has been involved in beauty pageants in the Wadsworth area since 2006, when she won her first title: Ms. Waukegan. When she was crowned Miss Wadsworth in 2012, her platform was asthma and she chose Respiratory Health Association as her charity beneficiary. The Chicago-based nonprofit raises awareness and funds for lung disease research and programs. One of the programs, Fight Asthma Now©, helps children like Sarah's brother by teaching youth and teens the tools and knowledge to identify and avoid triggers, manage asthma episodes and control asthma on a long-term basis. Sarah recently presented Respiratory Health Association with funds that will help support people living with lung diseases such as asthma, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Sarah also used her platform as Miss Wadsworth to help other local children understand their asthma triggers and symptoms. With the help of her brother's doctor, she created an asthma and allergy presentation that she shared at several area schools.

"My dad and brother are such inspirations for what I want to do in life because they can still do just as much as any healthy person," Sarah said. "They don't let asthma keep them from doing what they want and are living completely normal lives."

This fall, Sarah begins her freshman year at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. No doubt she will devote much of her time to her studies, but she still sees herself competing in beauty pageants. Her next goal, she says, is to continue to spread asthma awareness - as Miss Missouri.

Learn more about our asthma education programs.

May Skyline Plunge! Chicago

 Kathleen Butte
Chris Fryzek
Erin Keller
Carolyn Miller 

Sisters participating in Skyline Plunge! in memory of mom

Kathleen as baby


On May 5, Kathleen Butte will do something she never expected in memory of her mom. As she's cheered on by her family and friends, the Atlanta native will rappel 27 stories down theWit Hotel in Chicago's Loop during Skyline Plunge! Chicago.

Skyline Plunge! Chicago is an event hosted by Respiratory Health Association to raise funds and awareness for the association's lung disease research and programs. When Kathleen was 15, her mother, Joan Butte, passed away from lung cancer. Kathleen has honored her mom's memory in many ways, but this is by far the most adventurous.

"After all my family has been through, it makes me realize life is short," Kathleen said. "I know my mom would think I was crazy for doing this, but we have to live life to the fullest in the time we have. Not too many people can say they've rappelled a building in downtown Chicago."

When Joan was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, it was a shock to her and her family. She had visited her doctor because she often felt short of breath, and was worried it might be more than just allergies, as she'd originally thought. Doctors first tried to treat her for pneumonia, but tests proved it was something worse.

"My mom never smoked, so lung cancer wasn't even in our minds," Kathleen said.

Lung cancer kills as many as 24,000 nonsmokers each year, and many times the disease is not diagnosed until the late stages. In Joan's case, she was diagnosed with stage 3B lung cancer. Doctors told her she had one year to live.

"My mom began chemotherapy and took part in a clinical trial," Kathleen said. "I think that's what helped prolong her life, and she lived for two and a half years after her diagnosis."

During the time of her mom's illness, Kathleen said her family received a lot of support.

"We were able to continue with our normal lives thanks to the help of family, friends and the community," Kathleen said.

Joan's friends also helped her and her family keep their faith.

"My mom was very religious and some of her best friends and members of All Saints Catholic Church made sure she received communion daily at the house and always had someone to talk to," Kathleen said. "My mom was the most courageous person I've known and always said, 'God has his plan. This is the cross I have to bear.' It kept our spirits up, because for us to be the ones complaining seemed unfair."

Kathleen's family cherished the time they had together, and to this day, they continue to find ways to come together in Joan's memory. Although Kathleen now lives in Chicago and the rest are in the Atlanta area, they've run charity 5Ks together, and now they will step over the edge 278 feet above State and Lake Streets. Kathleen will rappel with her sister, Erin, and Jacob Hadden, both of Atlanta, as her father, Tony Butte, cheers them on from below. Her brother, Kevin, can't make the rappel but is keeping his sisters in his thoughts.

Kathleen is hoping the event will draw even more spectators and help change the future of lung disease.

"I'd like to see an increased awareness of lung cancer because it is the leading cause of cancer deaths, but I feel like sometimes it gets overlooked compared to other cancers," Kathleen said. "I'd like the death rate to decrease and the number of treatment options to increase. Raising money and awareness for lung disease is also just a good way to honor and remember those who passed away or survived."

Kathleen has committed to raising $1,000 for Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs. To support Kathleen in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit


Hickory Hills man rappels in memory of his hero

Chris FryzekWhen Chris Fryzek's grandfather, Karl Krejca, felt out of breath in 2007, he initially dismissed it as old age. He was fairly active as an 84-year-old, and knew he was going to have to slow down sometime. But when his daily activities got harder and harder, he sought a doctor's opinion. In February of 2007, Karl was diagnosed with lung cancer. He and his family were shocked and wanted a second opinion, so they scheduled another appointment for April. Karl never made it.

"When my grandfather was diagnosed, his doctor told him he had at least one year," Chris said. "Over just two-and-a-half months we saw his health decline rapidly. I tried to spend as much time with him as I could between going to school and working full-time."

Karl passed away at the end of April 2007, and Chris lost one of the most important people in his life. Growing up, Chris, of Hickory Hills, had spent a lot of time at his grandparents' house in nearby Evergreen Park and he and his grandfather had grown very close. Karl was a hard worker who kept busy during retirement as an elementary school crossing guard and a part-time volunteer at a local nursing home. Chris admired his grandfather's work ethic and love of life.

One responsibility Karl took especially seriously was being a family man. He made sure to spend time with his grandchildren and eight brothers and sisters, often taking on planning family vacations. He and his wife, Ruth, loved traveling, and Karl was always looking for ways to learn more about the world.

Chris has many fond memories of time with his grandfather, one involving a furry friend. Chris grew up hearing about "Grandpa's pugs," so when he wanted a dog of his own one month after his grandpa's diagnosis, he knew exactly what kind to get. Chris picked up a pug puppy and brought her straight to his grandfather's house.

"At that point, he was already on oxygen and pretty sick, but he perked up right away when he saw the dog and got the biggest smile on his face," Chris said. "It was nice to see that excitement in him again."

All of the traits Chris so admired in his grandfather were what he wanted to honor when he was looking for something to do in Karl's memory. He also wanted it to be something big. On May 5, Chris will rappel 27 stories off theWit Hotel as part of Skyline Plunge! Chicago, an event hosted by Respiratory Health Association. Skyline Plunge! raises awareness and funds for the association's lung disease research and programs.

"When I first told my family I was rappelling a building, they thought it was ridiculous and that I was crazy," Chris said. "They asked, ‘Why can't you just run a 5K?' There are a lot of those, but they aren't for me. I like the idea of doing something different in memory of my grandfather."

Chris is also rappelling to celebrate his graduation from Robert Morris University, which is the weekend following the event. He wishes his grandparents were still around to share in his accomplishment, but since they're not, he chose the next best thing.

"Between their passing and me finishing school, I wanted to do something to make a difference," Chris said. "I like that Skyline Plunge! Chicago will draw onlookers downtown and will raise a lot of awareness and funds for lung disease in such a cool, unique way."

Chris has committed to raising $1,000 for Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs. To support Chris in his fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit


Atlanta woman to rappel in honor of family friend

Erin KellerMore than a year ago, Erin Keller had never heard of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The progressive disease is a combination of emphysema and bronchitis and affects an estimated 24 million Americans. Erin also didn't know that there is no cure and it is the third leading cause of death. Since then, COPD has become a big part of her life because Erin learned her old nanny and good friend is living with the disease.

Erin, originally of Chicago, spent her childhood with her former nanny, Julie Daly. Julie babysat Erin until she was 6 years old and the families remained in contact after Erin's moved to Atlanta. Erin knew that every year without fail she would receive a birthday card from Julie. Julie would write about her job as a nurse and her children, and from far away Erin had no idea anything was wrong. But when Erin saw Julie this past Christmas - after she had been in the hospital and treated for a COPD exacerbation - she knew how serious it was.

"Julie had been in the intensive care unit for more than a week and was in a medically-induced coma," Erin said. "Exacerbations are scary because they can take people's lives or are detrimental to their health."

Julie is fine now, but Erin knows many other people with COPD aren't as lucky as she is. COPD is a progressive disease that damages the lungs and makes it hard to breathe.

"People with COPD don't have many treatment options," Erin said. COPD can be managed and in some cases a lung transplant is an option, but there is no cure. "We can't imagine what it must feel like to have COPD and not be able to breathe all of the time."

On May 5, Erin will do something for Julie and everyone else affected by lung disease. Erin is going to be one of more than 70 people to rappel 27 stories of theWit Hotel in downtown Chicago during Skyline Plunge! Chicago. The event is hosted by Respiratory Health Association to raise funds and awareness for lung disease research and programs.

"I'm excited to rappel for a lot of reasons, but mostly for Julie," Erin said. "I want to raise awareness for COPD and all lung diseases so that people living with them can have more treatment options and a better quality of life."

Erin has committed to raising $1,000 for Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs. To support Erin in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit

Respiratory therapist to rappel in memory of loved ones

Carolyn MillerAs a respiratory therapist at Community Hospital in Munster, Carolyn Miller is constantly talking about tobacco. This may not sound like the ideal job for an ex-smoker, but for Carolyn, it's a good reminder of why she quit and of all the pain something as small as a cigarette can cause.

Growing up, Carolyn was often around cigarettes. Her father was a truck driver and smoking helped him pass time on the road. It wasn't a habit Richard Pickerell or his wife, Zola, wanted their kids to pick up, but by the time Carolyn was 14, she was a regular smoker.

"They didn't like me smoking, but after they found out I did, they would provide me with cigarettes if I needed them," Carolyn said. "It's not something you could imagine today now that we know all of the health risks, but back then it was more accepted."

Carolyn smoked for 11 years until she decided she was tired of feeling out of breath and just plain unhealthy. In 1980, she and her husband, Rod, made a pact to quit, and she set her first smoke-free day as January 27, her mother's birthday.

"I told myself that by January 27 I'd never smoke again," Carolyn said. "I said that by January 27 I'd never search the house for a cigarette butt that was large enough to smoke. I'd never again put two halves of a cigarette together to make a whole, and I'd never go out in a tornado again just to get a pack of cigarettes."

The first week off of cigarettes was admittedly hard for Carolyn, who at the time was working as a waitress.

"This was when people were still allowed to smoke in the workplace, and at first I wanted to sit in the lap of smokers just to be closer to a cigarette," Carolyn said.

Carolyn stuck with her resolution to be smoke-free, and with each passing week, it got easier. As she weaned herself off of cigarettes, even the smell became unappealing.

"I wouldn't allow anyone to smoke in my house after I quit, and this was even before I knew about the harms of secondhand and thirdhand smoke," Carolyn said. "I had friends who were upset about my new rule, but I never wavered."

Carolyn didn't even bend the rule for her father; he was supposed to have quit with her in 1980. He never did, despite his daughter's warnings of the damage he was doing to his health. Years later in June of 2001, a doctor's visit revealed just how dangerous his years of smoking had been.

"My dad was having problems with his neck so he went to see a doctor," Carolyn said. "The doctor did an X-ray and found a lump on his lung. He had lung cancer."

Doctors couldn't do a biopsy, so instead her father had a lobectomy. The surgery went smoothly, but his recovery did not. Richard had trouble eating and his weight dropped dramatically. He quickly began to resemble his nickname "Pick." Pick stood for his last name, but now this already lanky man brought to mind a "toothpick," too. Richard knew his health was on the line.

"After my dad was diagnosed and went through his surgery, he apologized to my mom," Carolyn said. "He told her he wished he had quit smoking and that he was sorry he subjected her to secondhand smoke all those years. She told him it was okay, but he knew he had really, really hurt himself."

Richard passed away five months later due to complications from his surgery. Six years after that, Carolyn's mom passed away from pancreatic cancer, which was most likely caused by breathing secondhand smoke for so many years. Carolyn couldn't believe all of the grief her family had to suffer because of her father's addiction.

"I lost them both mindlessly, and it seems so unfair, because it's such a waste of good people," Carolyn said. "They should still be here to meet my grandchildren and be a part of my life."

Every day, Carolyn works hard to ensure other families don't have to experience what hers did. More than 20 years ago, she went back to school to become a respiratory therapist. She has worked at Community Hospital for 20 years, where she counsels and educates patients about tobacco use and cessation. She thinks back to her time as a smoker to be as persuasive as she can be.

"People tell me they like to smoke, but I tell them they don't just like it, they are addicted to nicotine," Carolyn said. "I try to appeal them in any way I can to get them to quit. I tell them to do it for their health, for their children, for their grandchildren, for the pocketbook, the list goes on and on. I try to help them see that there is nothing positive that comes from smoking a cigarette.

"Sometimes people act like quitting isn't something they want to do, but really they are just scared because they don't know how to quit," Carolyn continued. "I get great fulfillment out of my job because I educate people about tobacco and smoking cessation. I feel as if I'm truly making an impact on a person's life when I talk to them and give them the tools to help them quit smoking and stop future damage to their lungs."

Carolyn hopes that her work will give others chances her parents never had. In May, she will go one step further in memory of her father and to help even more people affected by tobacco and lung disease. On May 5, she will be one of 80 people to rappel 27 stories of theWit Hotel in downtown Chicago as part of Skyline Plunge! Chicago. Hosted by Respiratory Health Association, the funds raised from Skyline Plunge! support programs that are near to Carolyn's heart, including lung cancer research and smoking cessation classes. It also raises awareness for lung disease, the second leading killer in the United States.

"I still think back to 1980 and wonder, ‘What if my dad had quit?' " Carolyn said. "I lost both of my parents, and I still get very angry about it. I don't want others to go through that."

Carolyn has committed to raising $1,000 to make a difference in the future of lung disease. To support her in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, go to


Hustle Up the Hancock 2013

 Katie Benson
 Stella Ionis
Jennifer JohnsonMatt and Diane Knoepke 
Erica Levin & Richard Losch
Julie Mulhern
Glenn Zogan 



Huntley woman climbs in honor of her younger sister

Katie Benson

Katie Benson, right, will climb in honor of her
younger sister, Meghan O'Brien.

In September, 30-year-old Meghan O'Brien had just moved to Chicago and was excited to start a new teaching job. But just weeks into her school year, she was admitted to the hospital for what doctors initially thought was pneumonia. When she wasn't getting better, they ran tests that revealed something that had never crossed her mind: Meghan had stage IV non-small cell lung cancer.

"We thought for sure that whatever it was we could cure it or try to treat it," said Meghan's older sister, Katie Benson, of Huntley. "But stage IV - especially being lung cancer - is not the news you want to hear."

Meghan immediately underwent emergency spinal surgery to remove tumors that were compressing her spine so much that she ran the risk of being paralyzed. Doctors removed a part of her spine and replaced it with titanium rods.

When Meghan was recovered enough to begin her cancer treatments, doctors discovered that she had a rare ALK gene mutation, which makes intravenous chemotherapy completely ineffective. They switched her to a different chemo treatment that attacks the mutation, and Meghan recently found out that the treatments seemed to be working. The sizes of some of the tumors have decreased and others have disappeared. Meghan and her doctors are hopeful.

Still, these last four months have turned Meghan's life upside down in a way that she and her family never imagined. As a healthy, young woman who never smoked, she is not the face of lung cancer. Yet despite Meghan's seemingly unlikely diagnosis, she is not alone. Lung cancer rates in women and nonsmokers have been on the rise over the last decade.

Aside from tobacco use, lung cancer can be caused by factors such as radon, air pollution, genetics and secondhand smoke. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, and more than 228,190 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in 2013. Despite these grave statistics, the disease continues to be one of the most underfunded cancers. With so few treatment options, families are often at a loss as to how to proceed. Although Katie and her family try to offer their support to Meghan in any way possible, sometimes they feel frustrated because they can't do the one thing they want to: cure Meghan.

"We've all rallied behind her, but what can we really do to help take away her pain?" Katie said. "She's the one who has to wake up every day with this."

Seeing her little sister struggle with her health and lose her independence has been especially hard for Katie, so she was grateful to find a unique way to help Meghan and everyone else affected by lung disease. On February 24, Katie will participate in the 16th annual Hustle Up the Hancock, a stair climb fundraiser hosted by Respiratory Health Association. More than 4,000 people participate each year to raise more than $1 million for lung disease research and programs. Katie signed up as a Lung Health Champion and set her fundraising goal at $2,500.

"Do I think it's going to be tough to climb? Yes, but Meghan has been through worse," Katie said. "What's climbing 94 flights of stairs compared to what she's been through?"

Katie's fundraising and training for Hustle have been a way for her family to take their minds off of the stress of waiting for Meghan's test results. Her climb is also giving them hope for the future of lung disease. Respiratory Health Association is currently funding four lung cancer researchers at local institutions, one of whom is studying the very gene mutation Meghan has and ways to detect it to better correlate responses to drug therapy.

As a former physical education teacher, Meghan wishes she could climb alongside her sister in the Hustle. But since she can't, cheering her on is the next best thing.

"Meghan was very excited and happy to hear I'm doing this because she wishes there was a cure," Katie said. "Anything that anyone can do to find a cure, she's behind."

To support Katie in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit


Lung transplant nurse to Hustle Up the Hancock for loved ones

Jennifer Johnson 
Jennifer Johnson (back left) featured with her
team in a previous Hustle Up the Hancock.

When Jennifer Johnson climbs 94 flights of stairs on February 24, she'll be honoring everyone who can't join her - including her organ transplant patients and her husband. 

Hustle Up the Hancock is an annual stair climb fundraiser hosted by Respiratory Health Association. More than 4,000 people participate each year and raise more than $1 million for lung disease research and programs. When Jennifer first climbed in 2005, she was on a team honoring a double lung transplant patient she'd grown close to as a nurse at Loyola University Health System. Since 2009, the event has become even more personal.

"In August of 2009, my husband went to his doctor because he was feeling out of breath during activities like coaching our son's football team," said Jennifer, of Brookfield. "The doctors first diagnosed it as pneumonia, but he wasn't getting better. They did a CT scan and it showed there was something worse, so they decided he should see a pulmonologist. Unfortunately, as a nurse who works among lung patients and transplants, it was hard not to let my mind go to the worst possible scenarios." 

Doctors determined that her husband, Mike Johnson, had a rare lung disease, cryptogenic organizing pneumonia. The disease causes the bronchioles and surrounding tissues in the lungs to become inflamed and makes it hard to breathe. The cause of the disease is unknown, and there is no cure, but it can be managed.

"It was really hard to have an oxygen machine come into the house, to have things I see at work come into our life," Jennifer said. "But luckily, Mike's disease is something that can be treated, and he won't need a lung transplant."

This year, Jennifer is climbing in Hustle as a Lung Health Champion and has started her own team, Loyola's Lung Angels. Teammates include her colleagues, her 12-year-old son, Payton, and two former patients who are lung transplant survivors.

"Some of my teammates didn't even used to be able to walk across their house without being short of breath," Johnson said. "To see them doing something so amazing, it makes this event much bigger than me. It gives me the drive to keep going for all the patients who can't make it."

Mike can't climb with Jennifer, but will meet his family at the top in John Hancock Observatory.

"I want Mike to know there isn't anything I wouldn't do to support him," Jennifer said. "It's almost harder for me to have gone through this because I know all of the medical terms and what's happening, yet I can't help him. Climbing is a way I can help fund lung disease research and spread awareness about lung health so people can identify their lung problems."

To learn more or register for Hustle, visit To support Jennifer in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit


Beverly couple climbing in memory of mom

Matt and Diane Knoepke 
Diane and Matt Knoepke celebrate the end of
their 2011 Hustle.

Matt and Carol Knoepke 
Matt Knoepke and his mom, Carol, pictured
after his 2010 Hustle.

When Diane and Matt Knoepke participate in their fourth Hustle Up the Hancock on February 24, it will be their most emotional climb yet. Since 2010, they've climbed John Hancock Center in honor of Matt's mom, Carol Knoepke, who had interstitial lung disease. But this year, Carol won't be there to meet them for lunch and celebrate their accomplishment.

Carol passed away from interstitial lung disease in March of 2012. There is no known cause for the disease, which leads to scarring of the lungs and makes it progressively harder to breathe. Carol had the symptoms for nearly 20 years, but no one could give her an answer as to what was wrong.

"Doctors were saying everything from ‘It's in your head' to ‘It's allergies,' to just shrugging their shoulders and telling her to carry on,' Diane said.

Finally, Carol was tested by doctors at the University of Chicago, who properly diagnosed her constant shortness of breath and persistent cough. Unfortunately, the only available cure for the disease is a lung transplant, and doctors determined this was not an option for Carol because of her condition. Carol approached her diagnosis as she did with everything else in life - as optimistically as she could - but it was still a shock to her and her family.

"Her disease was not something that she could have made a different choice to avoid or something that makes sense, it just happened," Diane said. "The level of unfairness of that is hard - just as it is with all cancers and autoimmune diseases."

Diane and her husband, Matt, a couple from Chicago's Beverly neighborhood, wanted a way to raise more money for lung disease research. They signed up for their first Hustle Up the Hancock the day after Carol's 61st birthday, Nov. 2, 2009, and led other family members on the team "Carol's Climbers" to honor Carol and raise awareness for better treatments.

"We are very aware of the advances that are being made in lung disease diagnostics, prevention and treatment, but they're not quick enough to our liking," Diane said. "We want to see more research done."

In 2010, the team completed the 52-floor half climb of Hustle Up the Hancock, and in 2011 and 2012, they took on the full climb of 94 floors. Each year, Diane's parents and Matt's dad met them at the finish line in John Hancock Observatory to celebrate their accomplishment. Although she wasn't well enough to come to the event, Carol cheered along by watching news footage from home and wearing a sweatshirt that read, "I HAVE CLIMBERS!" They always met for lunch after.

Shortly after the 2012 event, Carol's health quickly declined. She passed away in 2012, at just 63 years old. There's not a day that Diane and Matt don't miss her smile, and they know that without Matt's mom, this year's climb will have an even bigger effect on them.

"We have two milestones left since her passing: Hustle and the anniversary of her death," Diane said. "Hustle has always been an emotional event because it's a tribute to Carol. There have always been tears, and there will be for sure this year."

Diane and Matt climb as a Lung Health Champion and have committed to raising $1,000 each. They are eager to make a difference in lung disease research and decrease the number of people who have to experience what their family did.

"This whole process has been emotional, and in signing up to be a Lung Health Champion, we feel as if we're making an impact," Diane said. "Do we think things will be fixed in a year? No. We know it will take a while, but if money goes to the right place, it will move faster than it has been. The thought of people going through the same thing is horrible, but it doesn't have to be that way."

Since their first climb in 2010, Carol's Climbers have raised more than $7,400 for Respiratory Health Association. To support team members in their fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit


Father-daughter team climbing to fight lung disease

When Richard Losch went to a doctor's appointment for a routine checkup in 2010, he was surprised when his doctor asked him how long he had had a lump on his neck - he'd never noticed it before. Within a few days, he had a biopsy done and was diagnosed with stage IV neck and throat cancer. Within 15 days of his doctor's visit, Richard went in for surgery to remove his tonsils, part of his palate and lymph nodes in his throat.

"I felt perfect, so it was nothing I had any warning of at all," said Richard, of McHenry. "And once you have something like that, it touches everyone around you. It's not just you who is dealing with cancer; it's the whole family."

The diagnosis came as a shock to Richard and his wife because he didn't have a history of smoking. They wanted to give cancer a fight, and Richard said his wife told him, "We're going to beat this, and it's the only option." His daughter, Erica Levin, remained optimistic.

"I tried to take everything one step at a time," said Erica, of Chicago. "When he had the biopsy and we got the results, I said ‘We'll get through this and go from there.' We stayed positive."

After three chemotherapy treatments and eight weeks of radiation five days a week, Richard beat cancer. In finding he was cancer-free, the Losch family wanted a way to celebrate and help others in their situation, so they signed up for Hustle Up the Hancock. Hosted by Respiratory Health Association, the stair climb up John Hancock Center raises more than $1 million each year for lung disease research and programs.

The family has climbed Hustle before to support Respiratory Health Association's smoke-free programs and in honor of other family members, but this year they know it will be a more emotional experience. Their team, RHA: Reaching High Altitudes, has two members who are climbing to the top in honor of Richard.

"I think part of the reason my dad is doing it is to say, ‘I battled cancer, and I can still climb 94 flights of stairs. Cancer hasn't beaten me in anything,' " Erica said.

Richard says he's fortunate to have his health, but knows that other people aren't as lucky as him. He's also climbing to honor his aunt, who was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago and was his inspiration during his fight.

"The work to fund research and treatment is so critical," Richard said. "Thanks to what already has been done, people are living longer, and we're detecting the disease so much earlier. We need continued research, continued dedication and commitment. It takes a very special person to be a doctor, technician or anybody else who deals with this ugly thing called cancer, and the more help we can give them, the better chance we have for survival."

To learn more or register for Hustle, visit To support Richard and Erica's team in their fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit


Western Springs resident to Hustle in memory of her mom

On February 24, Western Springs resident Julie Mulhern will honor her mom's memory by climbing 94 floors as part of Hustle Up the Hancock, a fundraiser hosted by Respiratory Health Association. Julie lost her mom, Patsy, to lung cancer in July, and Julie is committed to raising funds and awareness for the association's lung cancer research and programs.

In 2009, Patsy was hospitalized for pneumonia, and after a series of tests, she was told that she had stage III lung cancer. The diagnosis came as a shock to her family, but they immediately started chemotherapy, radiation and breathing treatments.

"I was in shock and I could not believe that this was happening to such an amazing woman," Julie said. "But, I knew that we had gotten through everything else we faced as a family, including losing our father, her husband, and knew that somehow we would all do what it would take to get us through this."

Through Patsy's diagnosis and treatment, she was determined to stay positive, and her six children followed suit. Julie and her sisters accompanied her mom to chemo treatments and brought along their favorite snacks and gossip magazines. Even Julie's children made the best of a difficult situation.

"After mom lost her hair from chemo, she'd take her wig off and the kids would joke around and rub her head," Julie said. "We just tried to laugh about it."

Julie and her siblings were hopeful that their mom would recover. Unfortunately, the cancer spread to her brain, and after another round of chemotherapy treatments, doctors said there was nothing else they could do. But Patsy's spirit was untainted.

"Her attitude was that she just had to throw back her shoulders and move on," Julie said. "She could have thought, ‘Why me?,' but instead she thought ‘Why not me? I'm just like everyone else.' "

After fighting cancer for two and a half years, Patsy passed away on July 3, 2012. Julie was heartbroken, and wanted to do something in her mom's memory.

"I almost feel like my mom helped me find Hustle Up the Hancock," Julie said. "I heard of other stair climbs and thought they sounded cool, but I didn't know there was one to do with respiratory health until after I sat down and Googled it. Hustle was the one I wanted to do."

On February 24, Julie will climb 94 floors, thinking of her mom every step of the way. When she crosses the finish line in John Hancock Observatory, her family will be there to meet her, and together, they'll celebrate Patsy while knowing that they've made a difference for people facing lung cancer.

"I'm really committed to this cause, and I know it will feel good when I get to the top," Julie said. "It makes me feel good knowing that I'm doing this for my mom and to help other people like her."

Julie is currently one of the top 15 individual fundraisers. To support Julie in her fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit To learn more or register for Hustle, visit


Chillicothe family to honor mom in charity stair climb

In 2006, Stella Ionis was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. She had just given birth to her youngest child, Homer, when she was hospitalized for having trouble breathing. What doctors initially thought to be pneumonia turned out to be much more serious.

"That diagnosis changed everything," Stella said. "I was a working mom, and I had planned on giving birth to Homer and going back to work, doing what I've always done."

Instead, she had to leave her job at the hospital and give up her dreams of finishing school to become a nurse. Since that day five years ago, pulmonary fibrosis has taken a toll on her day-to-day life. It can be exacerbated unexpectedly and land her in the hospital for several days at a time.

"Some days, I'm pretty good and can get around and go shopping, but other days I'm lucky if I can get out of bed," Stella said. "It's hard to even plan to make it to the kids' school functions, and they've had to get used to that."

Like most people living with pulmonary fibrosis, Stella doesn't know what caused the disease. She does know that her lungs are irreversibly scarred and that there is no treatment or cure. Her best option is a lung transplant.

"I've already outlived my life expectancy," Stella Rhoads said. "Doctors told me I had 3 to 5 years from diagnosis, and I'm on year 6. We just take it day-by-day."

When Stella was diagnosed, her daughter Nellie was 12 years old. Even at a young age, she has helped her mom in ways neither of them could have imagined. Whenever Stella feels sick, Nellie takes over as "mom" and drives Homer to basketball practice or grocery shops.

"The best thing is that Nellie does whatever I ask of her without complaint, and with a good sense of humor," Stella said. "She takes care of everything under the notion that ‘This is what you do when someone you love needs help. You help them.' I'd be lost without her, and so would her brothers."

Now, Nellie wants to help her mom in another way. On February 24, Nellie and Homer will climb 52 floors of John Hancock Center as part of Hustle Up the Hancock.

Hustle Up the Hancock is an annual stair climb fundraiser hosted by Respiratory Health Association in Chicago. Each year, more than 4,000 people climb 52 or 94 floors to help raise more than $1 million for the association's lung disease research and programs. Nellie's stepfather lives in Chicago, so when she found the fundraiser, she knew it'd be a great place to honor her mom. To support Nellie and Homer in their fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit To learn more or register for Hustle, visit


Chicagoland architect to Hustle in memory of wife

Glenn ZagonOn February 24, Glenn Zagon will honor the memory of his wife, Melissa, by climbing 94 floors as part of Hustle Up the Hancock, a fundraiser hosted by Respiratory Health Association. Together with their daughter, Hannah, Glenn is climbing to raise awareness and funds for lung cancer research.

Melissa was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000. She was 40 years old and did not smoke - something many assumed when they heard of her diagnosis.

Looking to find support, Melissa teamed up with Gail Levy, another woman who was fighting the disease, and founded LUNGevity Foundation. At the time, the women fought the stigma associated with lung cancer. Support for the group grew rapidly and their mission evolved to focus on finding a cure for the disease. Melissa herself was frustrated by a lack of innovation in treatments.

"She realized that a lot of the treatments were, at the time, 30 years old," said Glenn. "Nothing new had been developed to fight lung cancer for a long time. She wanted to find a cure for herself and others."

Even after losing Melissa, Glenn and Hannah stayed involved with LUNGevity Foundation and continue to support the fight against lung cancer. This is the first year that the father-daughter duo is participating in Hustle Up the Hancock.

"It was one of those things that Hannah and I have always talked about doing," he said, "but this year, we decided to show our support for Respiratory Health Association and raise money for their cause."

Funds raised by Hustle Up the Hancock support Respiratory Health Association's lung disease research and programs, including lung cancer research. The organization is currently funding lung cancer research at four Chicago hospitals.

"The research initiatives are great," he said. "No one could figure out how Melissa got lung cancer so finding ways to detect and prevent lung disease are a priority."

In addition to climbing John Hancock Center side-by-side, Glenn and Hannah plan to spend February 24 remembering Melissa by doing some of her favorite things.

"I think we'll go to Melissa's favorite breakfast place, and Hannah will be wearing a University of Michigan T-shirt for her mom; that's where Melissa went to school," Glenn said. "We're going to make a day of the things she enjoyed."

To learn more about Hustle, visit To support Glenn in his fundraising efforts or to offer words of encouragement, visit