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Lung cancer and one family’s battle
By Ernest Gurulé
All her adult life, Carolyn Suazo was simply a conscientious Denver Public Schools worker; dependable, professional and driven. She’d begun her career in DPS as a teacher’s aide but, through her own initiative, climbed the ladder. From teacher’s aide she became a secretary and, after a number of years of doing that, including stints at a couple of schools, she thought she’d found her niche. Then a new opportunity came open, one she had not considered.

“Her principal wanted her to apply for the position,” said Alfonso Suazo, her son and the person she often relies on to help her out at home, take her to appointments or simply spend time with. The job was Executive Secretary for Secondary Education.

The job was perfect and not just for her, said Suazo, an information technology specialist who does graphic and web design. The foundation for his skills came from his mother. Her new job gave her a jump start in learning computers, a knowledge she shared with her son and daughter. The Suazos were ahead of the curve on this new technology.

“We were the ‘three musketeers,” he joked. But three became two when his sister passed away a few months ago. An auto-immune and liver disease took her life.

The Suazos were tireless as they dealt with her illness, shuttling between Denver and California, where his sister lived to be near her doctors. But they were a family and it was what families do.

As they juggled priorities in order to focus on his sister, Suazo said, things took a turn. In 2013, on what was hoped would be a routine check-up, his mother’s doctors “discovered a lump.” It was cancer. “It was underneath the arm, in the breast area,” he recalled. “Given the location and the size, they were concerned.” After several surgeries to remove lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments, his mother passed the five-year period. Five years is normally the period doctors use to determine if a patient is cancer free.

Then, once again, bad news came calling. But it wasn’t breast cancer. This time it was lung cancer. The Suazos were shocked. His mother was not a smoker, the cause of most lung cancers, the third leading cause of cancer death behind breast and prostate cancers.

“We were blindsided by it,” he remembered. “We had to recalibrate.” In the process, a quick education on lung cancer ensued. Most of the information he read pointed to smoking or second-hand smoke as the cause. But he also learned that lung cancer can also be caused by other things, including asbestos. But tobacco and asbestos had never been part of his mother’s life. He was stumped. He suspects that the lung cancer may have been caused by early radiation treatments his mother received for breast cancer.

A recent study conducted by the American Lung Association indicated that lung cancer can hit both smokers and non-smokers. Second-hand smoke is also a factor. The study showed that lung cancer kills nearly 1,200 men and women each day and approximately 440,000 Americans each year, with about a fourth of them being non-smokers.

It also strikes both old and young. Among men, the chance of contracting lung cancer is about one in thirteen. Among women, the chance of getting lung cancer is one in sixteen. Interestingly, white women and Latinas have shown a recent spike in lung cancer diagnoses. African Americans, however, are victims of this disease at a disproportionately high number.

The ALA says that African Americans and women are the most likely victims of lung cancer. But African American men are 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than any other group.

While lung cancer is a serious health issue, it does not necessarily carry a death sentence. The American Cancer Society says that early detection is important. Next, radiation, immunotherapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy is often successful in slowing its growth or eradicating it.

When his mother suspected something was not quite right, she told her doctor. “First they did a cat scan,” said Suazo, followed by a series of tests. “The tests made the determination. They found something on the lung and surgery followed. The surgery involved removing “two of her (lymph) nodes,” he said. After a short recovery, doctors ordered radiation and chemotherapy which continues to this day.

Because of her weakness, the interview was conducted only with Suazo. But his mother would offer or clarify matters when she could. Right now, said Suazo, the priority is to get his mother through this stage.

“Mom and I go for walks,” he said. “The first weeks (after the surgery) she was really strong.” But when the effects of her treatment set in, things slowed down. “It was the chemo that really slowed her down.”

Despite the gloominess of a lung cancer diagnosis, both Suazo and his mother are more philosophical than disconsolate, about things. “I’m motivated for my mom,” he said. “This is our ship and I have to help navigate it. I have to figure out how we’re going to get from Point A to Point B,” adding, “I don’t begrudge the wind.” “This is my responsibility and my commitment, and I’m prepared.”

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