Monica Barlow hates being asked whether she is a former smoker. To her it doesn't matter. To the people she meets who hear she is battling Stage 4 lung cancer, it seems the only possible explanation.
"The answer is no, but that kind of frustrates me, because that's not to say that if I did smoke I deserved cancer," said Barlow, 35, director of public relations for the Orioles.
The stigma behind her disease is one reason she is participating in the Breathe Deep Baltimore 5K Walk/Fun Run around the warning track at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Sept. 22. All proceeds from the event will benefit LUNGevity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for lung cancer research as well as spreading awareness and providing support for those affected by the disease.
Barlow, who has participated in walks for the past two years, will be a guest speaker at the event. She spoke last year at Breathe Deep DC.
"I think the purpose of me speaking or the intent is just to give hope to people who are dealing with lung cancer, who have family and friends who have lung cancer, that this is an incredibly deadly disease," she said.
Andrea Stern Ferris, president and chairman of the board of LUNGevity, said that of the more than 220,000 Americans diagnosed with lung cancer per year, 167,000 cases are fatal.
"The reason that it's so fatal is that it's asymptomatic, so you generally don't find out that you have lung cancer until it's in a very advanced stage," she said.
Barlow was diagnosed in September 2009 when she noticed a cough that she "just couldn't get rid of" while training for a half-marathon. After she visited walk-in clinics and took prescribed antibiotics that were ineffective, her husband urged her to go to another doctor.
"So I ended up going up the street here to University of Maryland, to the family medicine center, just to a walk-in appointment," she said. The doctor there ordered scans, which revealed a spot in her left lung. A follow-up PET scan showed that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and liver.
The diagnosis came as a shock to Barlow, who had always made health and fitness an important part of her life.
"I'm not sure you can really describe that feeling unless you've experienced it yourself," she said. "Everything in your life becomes 'before' and 'after' at that point; it just really changes the way you look at everything."
In May she underwent surgery to remove 40 percent of her liver. She is taking the drug Xalkori, which has been shown to be effective for patients such as Barlow with the gene mutation ALK, anaplastic lymphoma kinase.
The FDA gave Xalkori a priority review and approved it in 2011 under its accelerated approval program. The drug is marketed by Pfizer.
It is because of scientific research, Barlow said, that this drug has been made available to her. And for this reason, she finds fundraisers such as Breathe Deep of utmost importance.
"If it weren't for this drug that lung cancer research funding provided the opportunity to have tested and brought to the market, realistically I probably wouldn't be alive, simply because this drug has been so effective for people who have the mutation that I have," she said. "I'm going to have to rely on the knowledge and expertise and discoveries of researchers for the rest of my life, so that's why ultimately I feel it's so important, and why I've benefited so much from it."
Camden Yards will be hosting the fundraiser, which marks the first time any event of its kind has taken place on the field itself. Registration is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., during which participants can pick up their event-day T-shirts. There will be activities during that hour, including a video-game challenge and a kids' area, which includes a candy station and moon bounce. Refreshments are free, and vendors will be selling items to benefit LUNGevity.
"This is the first time that they've hosted a lung-cancer-specific fundraising event — in fact, this is the first time there's been an event solely in Camden Yards — so it's a pretty unique thing and an honor to be able to have that here as the first event," Barlow said.
Cindy Malloy, the founder of Breathe Deep Baltimore, started the untimed walk/run in honor of her mother, who lost her battle with lung cancer in 2007. This will be the event's fifth year.
Malloy's mother "was diagnosed in December of 2003. She unfortunately lost her battle February 25 of 2007, and I made a personal decision to make a difference," she said. "I didn't want cancer patients or their family or friends to have to go through what we went through."
For more information about Breathe Deep Baltimore and the walk/fun run, go to the events tab at lungevity.org and find Maryland on the map.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times