LUNGevity: Local Effort Makes Huge Strides in Lung Cancer Fight

Three numbers. 10 years since LUNGevity was founded. 7 passionate, committed North Shore residents committed to raising awareness and funds for lung cancer research.

1 LUNGevity founding member alive today.

“That number underscores the importance of our mission,” says Mandy Holcomb, events manager and development associate for LUNGevity. “Of the original group of people to start our organization, just one is alive today to see how far we’ve come.”

LUNGevity—one of the fastest growing non-profit organizations in the country—was organized a decade earlier after seven lung cancer survivors came together to increase much-needed awareness and research funding.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lung cancer kills more people than any other form of the disease. In fact, in 2006, it was responsible for more deaths than breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer combined.

It’s that kind of statistic that lit a fire in the group, which included Gayle Levy, a Deerfield native and Glenview resident, Melissa Lumberg Zagon of Deerfield, Kay Barmore, Marge Breit and Patti Helfand of Northbrook, Dena Winick of Glencoe and Dick Pemble of Chicago. Helfand is the sole survivor of the founding members.

Says Holcomb, “These survivors found there wasn’t really anything for them to put their energy behind. There are so many organizations focused on specific types of cancer, but nothing really dedicated to lung cancer.”

“It’s incredible what she started,” Joan Grossman says of her daughter, Gayle, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 41. “It’s really gratifying for me to see.”

This North Shore-based organization started small, with local events and activities, but has since grown into a national force in lung cancer awareness efforts and fundraising for research into treatment. To date, nearly $8 million in research has been co-funded by the group.

“It’s our 10th year, so it’s a big year for us,” says Holcomb. “For a home grown organization, we’ve come so far, yet you can look at the fact we have one living founder today, and see how far we still have to go. There’s just not that many lung cancer survivors out there. There’s not enough funding. We don’t have the survivor numbers we’d like to see.”

So the fundraising continues—the Walk Together for LUNGevity on June 19 is in Gayle Levy’s honor. The event is one of the group’s signature fundraising efforts in the Chicago area.

“That’s my baby,” says Joan. “I started it locally in Deerfield several years ago for my daughter, and we realized we needed a larger location. We’ve got a much better turnout this year, too.”

The event is a relaxed affair—it’s family friendly, and includes a variety of fun activities post-race/walk for everyone to enjoy.

“We have lots of kid-friendly fun,” says Holcomb. “A DJ, music, entertainment…lung cancer survivors come out as well.”

This year’s goal is to raise $75,000 to continue the battle—a challenging one, Holcomb points out, as there remains a stigma that lung cancer affects just smokers.

“It’s something we fight and fight and fight,” she says. “We don’t focus on the cause, because it doesn’t matter how you got it. At the end of the day, no one deserves to have lung cancer.”

Grossman agrees. “That [Gayle] died wasn’t terrible,” she says. “That she got it—that was terrible. She was in great shape, she was a great mom. That’s the problem with lung cancer, and non-smokers in particular. You don’t even think to see the doctor until it’s too late.”