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From Survivor to Advocate: How One Patient Launched Two Foundations

Ben Leach
Published Online: Friday, October 5, 2012
Bonnie J. Addario

Bonnie J. Addario introduces the lectureship that her foundation funds during the 13th International Lung Cancer Congress.

Nine years ago, Bonnie J. Addario was a successful fiftysomething California businesswoman whose active lifestyle was being disrupted by persistent chest pain. Her doctors thought the pain stemmed from a bulging neck disc and, after months of fruitless exercising and frustration, she decided to pay for her own full-body computed tomography (CT) scan.

As it turned out, she had stage IIIB lung cancer.

Addario emerged from the trauma of her cancer journey with a desire to improve the experience for others. “It shouldn’t be that hard to get a good diagnosis and get good care,” Addario said during an interview at the 13th International Lung Cancer Congress. “There needs to be a change. And I am determined and committed to being a critical part of making that happen.”

Today, Addario’s name is synonymous with ground-breaking research and meaningful support for patients. In 2006, she established the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, which has raised more than $9 million. In 2008, the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute was established as a nonprofit research consortium among top institutions spanning North America and Europe.

Addario’s foundation also sponsors a lectureship award, which “recognizes luminaries in the quest to eradicate lung cancer” and supports a keynote presentation at the International Lung Cancer Congress. In July, D. Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, director of the Thoracic Oncology Clinical Program at the University of Colorado Denver, received the fifth annual award.

As Addario has gone from patient to survivor, she has learned much about what patients are looking for in terms of information and care. Through her organizations, she is determined to play a part in helping patients with lung cancer achieve better outcomes.

“There really is no consensus on standard of care for lung cancer like there is for breast cancer, for instance,” Addario said. “And because there’s such a good standard of care for breast cancer and early detection, the five-year survival rate for early-stage disease is about 90%. That’s where we need to be for lung cancer.”

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Conducting Her Own Search for Care

Addario found that even after she was correctly diagnosed, she had to search for answers on how best to be treated. At first, she was told the tumor was in such a difficult position that a biopsy could not be performed. “It was too close to my heart for them to get in close enough to get any tissue,” she recalled. “So then they told me that the only option really was surgery to see what was in there, and that just didn’t sound good to me. You’re going to cut into my chest and explore?”

By chance, Addario read a newspaper story about a partnership between Melissa S. Lim, MD, medical director and founder of Redwood Pulmonary Medical Association and a doctor at Sequoia Hospital, and David M. Jablons, MD, a professor in the Department of Surgery at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of California, San Francisco. The partnership allowed the pair to see difficultto- treat patients.

“They recommended a chemotherapy/radiation combination to reduce the tumor as much as they could. And then if that was successful, they would consider surgery,” Addario said. “We got to that point. I had all of the therapy, and David said that it’s still very difficult and it’s a challenge, but if you’re up to it, I am. He said, ‘Because if you don’t have it, you for sure won’t live.’ So we did it. We had the surgery, and I’m a grateful patient.”

After she was diagnosed with lung cancer, Addario found out that her own family has a history of lung cancer; her mother, in fact, was diagnosed with the disease after she was. As a result, her foundations aim to advance both emerging research and patient support.

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