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Anne Barbetta: I was told I had a year to live

Globe and Mail Update

When Dana Reeve died, everyone mourned the loss of a great woman, Christopher Reeve's wife, but no one seemed to bother asking, "Why did this woman, a non-smoker, have lung cancer?" Perhaps more than others, I grieved her passing, wondering if her fate would have been different had she been under the care of the extraordinary doctors that I had, for an illness that is greatly misunderstood.

Two years ago, I was happily married with a wonderful daughter and prided myself on leading a healthy lifestyle. At age 38, I gave birth to my son and life seemed perfect. Unbeknownst to me, my life was about to unravel.

Six weeks after my son was born, I developed a chronic cough. Misdiagnosed with bronchitis, several antibiotics were prescribed. Then I was told I had pneumonia; more rounds of antibiotics followed, with no effect. Finally, a biopsy confirmed the unbelievable truth: at age 39, never having even tried a cigarette, never having been exposed to second-hand smoke or unsafe working conditions, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. I was told I had a year to live.

Devastated, I began chemotherapy. I learned that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in North America, killing more Canadians than breast, colorectal and prostate cancer combined. One in five who are diagnosed are life-long non-smokers. Moreover, there is a pervasive social stigma associated with lung cancer; people assume it's the patient's "fault" because they have smoked. Overweight individuals can suffer from diabetes or heart attacks, yet they are not ostracized for poor eating choices. Since so many people are diagnosed in the late stages of lung cancer, if ever, there are few survivors to raise awareness and funds for research. Disturbingly, lung cancer is on the rise in women.

Miraculously, in December, 2005, I received a double-lung transplant at Toronto General Hospital, which saved my life. November is Lung Cancer Awareness month and now that I have longer than a year to live, I am committed to raising awareness about this terrible disease and the power that people have to save lives through organ donation.

Anne Barbetta, Newmarket, ON

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