Fighting lung cancer – and stereotypes


By Caryn M. Sullivan, / Pioneer Press.
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In 2011, Gary Brausen was 50 years old and still lacing up his hockey skates on a regular basis. He prided himself on his healthy lifestyle. So when he met with an oncologist to discuss treatment options for his Stage 3 lung cancer diagnosis, neither man could believe they were having the conversation.

Brausen is hardly the prototype of a lung cancer patient. He has never smoked; nor does anyone in his household. He has not been exposed to toxins like radon or asbestos. There is no family history of cancer, much less lung cancer.

Yet, his left lung was so diseased it needed to be removed.

In 2011, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation and lost 25 pounds. When summer arrived he could barely walk around the block, much less participate in rigorous activities such as the duathlon (a run/bike/run event) he’d completed the previous autumn.

Three years have passed, and Brausen is considered cured. Though he has regained his strength, his single lung cannot handle running. So he bikes. Last week, he rode 150 miles from the Twin Cities to Duluth with a group of supporters and lung cancer advocates. Sporting splashy jerseys designed to draw attention the riders chatted with strangers about lung disease and raised several thousand dollars for A Breath of Hope Lung Foundation, the nonprofit on whose board Brausen serves (

The husband and father of two teenage boys is not just a survivor; he is an ambassador with a calling. A man of deep faith, he believes he was stricken with lung cancer to serve a greater purpose. So he spends his limited free time raising awareness and funds for the foundation. He and other survivors serve as its ambassadors, offering rides, companionship and counsel to others who now sit in the chemotherapy chairs they once occupied.

To assist with the healing process on Aug. 16 the foundation will welcome cancer survivors, loved ones and supporters at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis for the Twin Cities Lung Run/Walk. This year they will begin a new tradition by launching a raft of white roses in remembrance of those who are gone, says Nancy Torrison, the foundation’s executive director.

The incidence of and survival rate for lung cancer are horrific. It is the leading cancer death for both genders, claiming more lives than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. While breast cancer survival rates have risen to about 90 percent, lung cancer survival rates remain extremely low.

Medical professionals express frustration about the fact most patients are diagnosed with lung cancer when they have reached stage three or four and have little hope of survival. If they were diagnosed earlier they could be treated and dramatically increase their chances of survival.

A Breath of Hope’s goal is to make a $99 low dose CT scan readily available to those who need it most but are unable to afford it. This summer the organization awarded two $10,000 grants to researchers at Hennepin County Medical Center and the University of Minnesota to establish outreach programs for high-risk populations such as American Indians and African Americans, particularly males.

“You can save a lot of lives by raising awareness and getting people who are at high risk in for screening and educating them about symptoms,” Torrison says.

Brausen’s was a classic lung cancer story. He had a persistent cough that continued to worsen. Initially diagnosed as a cold, it progressed to pneumonia. When it worsened he underwent scans that revealed it was cancer.

Symptoms of lung cancer include pain in the chest, shoulder or back unrelated to coughing; change in color of sputum; shortness of breath; changes in voice or hoarseness; coughing up blood; weight loss; bone pain; or headache.

Lung cancer is not only difficult to detect, it also carries a stigma not associated with other diseases. Though smoking is a risk factor for many other cancers, heart disease and stroke, the tendency to blame the smoker occurs most often with lung disease, Torrison says. The societal attitude is reminiscent of how people responded to AIDS, she says, noting the result is people do not always receive the care they require.

Researchers say lung cancer patients experience guilt and shame and a high rate of depression, which can impede their ability to follow the treatment regimen. Torrison, Brausen and other advocates are attempting to confront the stigma with facts, such as that half of those who die from lung cancer were never smokers or had quit many years before they became ill.

Brausen credits the pink-ribbon breast cancer community with being very effective in raising awareness by engaging individuals and organizations such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball in efforts to raise funds and awareness. “I don’t want to take money away from any other cause,” he says, “but I think it is time for people to start paying attention to lung cancer. If you breathe you can get it. That’s what people need to know.”

Caryn M. Sullivan of Eagan is a contributing columnist for the Pioneer Press. Email her at