Q&A with LUNGevity’s Catherine Levitt: Mother, Lawyer and Philanthropist

Deerfield resident Catherine Levitt is the vice president of a major pharmaceutical company, mother of four and an award-winning philanthropist for LUNGevity, the nation’s largest lung cancer-focused nonprofit.

When she answers the phone for her interview, Levitt sounds enthusiastic and a little overwhelmed. Over the last week and a half she has been to London for work meetings, Texas for her son’s college visit and just returned home with several days before her daughter’s bat mitzvah. Tonight she will attend an important meeting for LUNGevity’s annual fall benefit.

“Work is kind of crazy this week,” Levitt says. “I think that once I get through the bat mitzvah on Saturday, I am going to feel a lot better.”

Levitt is used to juggling a lot of commitments, and she does it well.

On Nov. 8, she will be presented with the 2014 Kay Barmore Volunteer award at LUNGevity’s annual fall benefit for her efforts to help raise thousands of dollars for lung cancer research through various fundraisers and activities.

Levitt talks with us about her involvement with the organization, easy ways to join in the fight against lung cancer and how she balances family with work and philanthropy.

Make It Better: How did you first become involved with LUNGevity?

Levitt: Jill Feldmen has become a very dear friend of mine. She has lung cancer. She was diagnosed when she was 39. She has four kids relatively aged to my four kids.

Jill sent out the invitations for LUNGevity’s annual fall benefit and with it she included this personal note in which she told her story about how she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. When Jill was 13 she lost both of her grandparents to lung cancer and six months later her dad died of lung cancer. She lost her mom to the disease when she was about 20. She has never smoked a day in her life. I read her story and I started to cry. I got out the school directory and I called her and said, ‘I had no idea, how can I help?’

I went to the fall benefit and to the committee meeting and was surrounded by people who had heartbreaking stories. It was one of those things where I was like, ‘Wow I really want to be involved.’

I didn’t know anything about lung cancer at the time. I had no idea that it was the number one cancer killer—it kills more than breast, colon and pancreatic cancer combined. The more I learned, the more I got hooked.

How does your career connect with your involvement in LUNGevity?

My title is Vice President, Risk Management and Chief Litigation Counsel, so I am in the legal department. I am a lawyer and I have been here for 10 years.

The company work I for is Astellas Pharma. It is a global pharmaceutical company. Our headquarters are in Tokyo, but our U.S. headquarters are now in Northbrook. We are in a number of therapeutic areas. Unbelievably, after I got involved with LUNGevity, Astellas bought a company and now we are involved in cancer oncology and working with an amazing drug for lung cancer.


It’s so rewarding because in my personal life I have this passion that keeps me going, and engaged and motivated. And then at work, I see the people I work with every day on our oncology team working so hard to develop drugs that will hopefully cure lung cancer, but if not cure, then really improve the lives of patients and extend their lives.

How would you recommend people become involved in the fight against lung cancer?

1. Attend LUNGevity’s Fall Benefit in Glenview this Saturday, Nov. 8, donate or buy raffle tickets atfallbenefit.lungevity.org.

2. One of the things that’s so critical is awareness. Tell someone you know that lung cancer takes more lives each year than the top three cancers (breast, colon and pancreatic) combined and that we need more funding for research.

3. Save the date to volunteer or participate in LUNGevity’s Breathe Deep North Shore, a 5K fun-run and walk on April 26, 2015, at Deerfield High School that unites all of the North Shore communities as one in the fight against lung cancer. (email [email protected]).

My dream is what has happened with breast cancer can happen with lung cancer. When I was younger, my biggest fear was getting breast cancer. Years ago, the prognosis was not good but then people got behind it and people got educated. Awareness creates energy and now look at the month of October. Breast cancer awareness is everywhere and it’s so wonderful. If we could get that energy around lung cancer, then the sky’s the limit.

How do you balance family with your work and philanthropic efforts?

The truth is I don’t get much sleep. I used to say sleep is highly overrated.

But really, it’s all about having support from the people in your life. My work is very supportive of my schedule and my activities outside of work. Astellas really prides itself on creating a very family-friendly workplace. We have several paid days off for employees to do philanthropic activities.

I also have a great support structure with family and friends. I can’t say enough about how wonderful my husband is. I think it helps having people who are there to help you. Mark [her husband] is a Lake County circuit court judge so he is busy too, but all day long we’re texting each other, ‘Who’s picking up this child and who’s doing that?’ I’m definitely not alone in all of my efforts.

How did you react when you found out you were receiving the Kay Barmore award?

I was very surprised and very honored. I don’t usually find myself in the spotlight so it’s a little uncomfortable for me, frankly. I feel like it’s not about me. I feel like what I am doing pales in comparison to the people who are fighting this every day. They are the real heroes here.