In 2004, Bonnie J. Addario received a devastating diagnosis. Doctors told the 56-year-old married mother of three that she had stage IIIB lung cancer and would die in a matter of months if she didn’t begin treatment immediately.
Fourteen years later, Addario is cancer-free and leading the fight to help others with the disease. She and her family have founded two nonprofits, beginning with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation (ALCF) in San Carlos, Calif., in 2006. ALCF works with patients and advocates for innovative lung cancer medicines and treatments. The Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute (ALCMI), a global consortium dedicated to driving new studies, was founded in 2008.
At the time of her diagnosis, Addario was at the peak of her career as president of Olympian Oil Company in South San Francisco. Having watched her mother’s sister, brother and father all battle lung cancer and subsequently succumb to complications of the disease, Addario knew it was a formidable foe.
After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation to shrink her tumor, Addario had surgery to remove it. During her prolonged recovery, she researched lung cancer online and became frustrated at the lack of information available to lung cancer patients and their families. She also questioned why the survival rates for other types of cancer were so much higher.
“Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, and each year it kills more people than breast, prostate and colorectal cancer combined,” Addario says. “Yet the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 55 percent when the disease is still in the lung and 4 percent once it has spread.”
Historically, Addario notes, lung cancer research has lagged behind other forms of cancer, due in part to the misconception that it’s a self-inflicted disease caused by smoking.
“The reality is not all lung cancer patients are smokers, and smoking isn’t the only cause of lung cancer,” Addario says. “Other known causes include exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, radon and asbestos.”
Emily Bennett Taylor is living proof that even healthy nonsmokers aren’t immune to lung cancer. As she was preparing to celebrate her second wedding anniversary in 2012, Taylor was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Only 28 at the time of her diagnosis, she was the picture of health.
“My doctor initially thought I had asthma or allergies,” Taylor says. “Yet none of the treatments I was offered seemed to help.”
Taylor had heard about Jill’s Legacy, the namesake of Bonnie Addario’s sister foundation, which was named after Jill Costello, a student athlete at the University of California, Berkeley who died of lung cancer at age 22. Taylor realized she had some of the same symptoms that Costello had and that prompted her to request a chest X-ray. After receiving the results, her doctor requested a CT scan and then a biopsy. An oncologist ultimately diagnosed her with stage IV adenocarcinoma, a type of lung cancer that often affects nonsmokers.
Although Taylor’s prognosis was grim — the five-year survival rate for her advanced stage of cancer is around 1 percent — she was determined to beat the odds. After undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove her entire right lung, Taylor is now cancer-free and working as a patient advocate and spokesperson for ALCF.
In particular, Taylor participates in the nonprofit’s popular Lung Cancer Living Room speaker series. Each month in a relaxed home-like setting at ALCF headquarters, specialists and researchers give presentations to lung cancer patients that cover topics ranging from treatment options to clinical trials. Patients, who either attend in person or stream the presentations live on their computers, share personal stories while receiving and providing support to others.
David Gandara, professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, said no other organization offers anything like the ALCF Living Room.
“It’s amazing to have patients from all over the world brought together to hear the latest news on lung cancer research and treatments and to become more informed, not only through the presentations but also through the questions asked afterward,” says Gandara, who has led several Living Room presentations.
Early Detection is Key
Addario is passionate about making a difference in the fight against lung cancer and hopes to make it a manageable chronic disease by 2023 and, ultimately, to find a cure.
One new type of therapy, immunotherapy, is considered by researchers to be one of the most exciting advances in 40 years. Rather than attacking cancer directly, immunotherapy attempts to rally the patient’s own immune system to fight the disease.
“If diagnosed early, lung cancer is highly curable,” Addario says.
Since lung cancer occurs primarily in older people — about 2 out of 3 people are diagnosed at age 65 or older — the good news is that Medicare coverage is available for low-dose computed tomography (LDCT), which screens those at a higher risk for that type of cancer.
Addario’s ALCF also runs the Community Hospital Center of Excellence Program, which is designed to accelerate lung cancer detection and treatment. ALCF currently directs patients to 30 Centers of Excellence located across the United States to receive coordinated multidisciplinary care.
“Bonnie is a powerful positive force in the fight against lung cancer,” Gandara says. “It’s a privilege to work with such an incredibly innovative nonprofit.”