Keeping My Promise To My Wife

Don Stranathan made headlines in 2012 when he met and fell in love with another cancer survivor, Penny Blume. Since her death in January, he has shifted his attention to the national stage.

“My last promises to Penny were that I would continue to live life to the fullest and advocate for lung cancer research and awareness,” said Stranathan, 62. He recently returned from Virginia, where he helped evaluate applications submitted to the Lung Cancer Research Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Stranathan was diagnosed with lung cancer more than five years ago and met Blume in 2011 on the online health forum Inspire. Both had stage IV lung cancer when they got together in 2012.

“I knew and Penny knew getting into this relationship that with both of us having terminal lung cancer it was going to be hard,” Stranathan told Towns Correspondent Melody Karpinski that year. “No matter how long you have, you have to live every minute and enjoy it. That’s what Penny and I do.”

After their love story appeared in The Press Democrat, it was shared by ABC News and Good Morning America. While she was able, Blume worked with Stranathan to spread the word about the need for lung cancer prevention and research, particularly screening.

Now Stranathan said, “The bad news is that I have cancer. The good news is that cancer has taught me to love life to the fullest, not to hide from it.

“There is a big stigma about the disease because people associate it as a smoker’s disease, with the sort of shame and blame that you brought it upon yourself.”

The American Cancer Society predicts more than 159,000 deaths from lung cancer in 2014 and 224,000 new cases diagnosed. Lung cancer kills more people than any other form of cancer and accounts for about 27 percent of all cancer deaths.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceed only by lung cancer. About 40,000 people are predicted to die from breast cancer in 2014, with 232,000 new cases diagnosed.

Yet while pink ribbons blanket the nation each October to promote breast cancer awareness, lung cancer awareness month in November rarely gets the same fanfare.

“What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that more women die of lung cancer than breast cancer,” said Stranathan. “Basically, if you have lungs you can get lung cancer. Lung cancer is a serious issue for everyone.

“I can think of six women off the top of my head in this county who have stage IV lung cancer. None of them ever smoked.”

The federal research program received $68.5 million from Congress in fiscal years 2009-2013, and another $10.5 million in fiscal year 2014. Panels were created to evaluate applications for that funding.

Stranathan began to participate in the program last year, performing preliminary online review of applications, but as Penny’s condition worsened and he provided full-time for her in his Santa Rosa home, he was not able to see the project through.

“I lot of the reason why I do things like this is just to try and get the information out about how serious this disease is,” he said.

For the Lung Cancer Research Program, Stranathan was part of a panel that included a chairperson, a scientific review officer, a doctor who actively treated lung cancer patients, a researcher and a consumer. As a consumer reviewer, Stranathan critiqued the impact each program would have on survivors. Many of the applications were for programs to provide early detection of cancer.

“It was very exciting,” Stranathan said.

While working as an account manager at Scott Technologies, he was allowed to buy extra vacation time and telecommute from the hospital. But when Blume’s condition worsened, Stranathan went on disability to help care for her.

A strong advocate of personal wellness, he feels that his dedication to eating right and regular exercise along with the target therapy pill Tarceva have allowed him to survive the disease.

“Less than 17 percent of people with stage IV get past five years,” he said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette. Every few months when I go in for a scan everything can change within a few seconds,” he said. “We call it ‘scanxiety,’ but it reminds you that each day is a blessing.”

After a few very busy months that included advocacy events, working with the Lungevity Foundation and supporting Team Draft, an initiative of the Chris Draft Family Foundation, Stranathan plans take it easy the rest of the year and get down to Texas to visit his granddaughters.

At the same time, he will make himself available if people need him.

“One day at a time, I try to keep those promises to her.”