Lung Cancer Advocates Come Together for Loved Ones
“For the first time in four months, my mother was genuinely smiling,” said Kearston Ingraham, MPH, research program evaluator for the Duke Cancer Institute Office of Health Equity.
That day was Sunday, August 1, 2021, World Lung Cancer Day. After church, Ingraham and her mother, Deborah Bryant — in mourning for their devoted stepfather and husband Odies Bryant, Sr. — had stopped by a "White Ribbon build” at a private home in Apex, North Carolina.
Organized by the Raleigh-based Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina in coordination with the Colorado-based White Ribbon Project, the grassroots outdoor gathering lifted their spirits.
Ingraham and Bryant joined LCI staff, White Ribbon Project founders Heidi Nafman-Onda and Pierre Onda, cancer care providers and staff from Duke Cancer Institute and UNC Lineberger Cancer Center, and lung cancer advocate Chris Draft (a former pro football player who lost his wife to lung cancer nearly a decade ago), in decorating plywood ribbons painted white for lung cancer awareness.
“When we first walked up the driveway, it felt like a celebration — a celebration-of-life event for those living with lung cancer as well as those that passed away from lung cancer,” said Bryant, who got to work right away affixing lung cancer awareness labels to white ribbons. “It brought instant joy to me that I could participate. I was happy because it felt like I was still doing something for my husband, Odies, even though he is no longer here with us, as well as for others that have passed away from lung cancer. I really felt joy to be able to do something that could help other people living with lung cancer and their loved ones. I also felt like there was hope.”
The White Ribbon Project was formed in October 2020 by Colorado residents Heidi Nafman-Onda and her husband Pierre Onda to raise awareness about lung cancer and support those touched by the disease nearly three years after Heidi, at 55, was diagnosed with stage 3a lung cancer.
For the next seven months, the couple would make nearly 700 white ribbons in their garage — each one hand-signed and with a personal note enclosed — then mail them to lung cancer advocates all over the U.S. The couple also encouraged supporters to make their own look-alike ribbons and host their own ribbon building events. This summer the Ondas crisscrossed America making ribbons and supporting advocates by participating in community "White Ribbon" building events, including the one in Apex.
The ribbons made at the Apex gathering would be delivered to patients, caregivers, and medical personnel in North Carolina in support of their fight against lung cancer.
Ingraham and Bryant were gifted one on the spot from the Ondas themselves with a hand-written note on the back that read ‘With Love Heidi and Pierre, ’21, You are never alone!’
Duke Cancer Institute professors of medicine Jennifer Garst, MD (a thoracic oncologist who practices at Duke Cancer Center Raleigh and board chair of the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina) and Momen Mohammed Wahidi, MD, MBA (a pulmonologist who practices in the Thoracic Cancer Clinic at Duke Cancer Center Durham) also joined the effort.
“I was happy to see Dr. Garst there,” recounted Bryant. Garst had been Odies Bryant’s doctor throughout his cancer journey. “I was very thankful and grateful that Odies was able to live for 19 months past his diagnosis. For months (during this time) Odies’ voice changed drastically. Dr. Garst extended his life and gave us his voice back … She always made Odies smile when he went to his oncology appointments.”
While the number of lung cancer deaths is decreasing, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death in men and in women (not including skin cancer). Per the American Cancer Society, it will take the lives of roughly 132,000 people in the U.S. this year — including about 5,000 in North Carolina — estimates the American Cancer Society.
Of those diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. each year, 18% are never-smokers. Former smokers account for 61% of lung cancer diagnoses and current smokers make up 21% of cases. More than 75% of lung cancers are diagnosed in people over the age of 65.
Odies Bryant was 96 when he passed away on April 18, 2021. A Raleigh resident since May 2006, the Georgia-born decorated World War II U.S. Army rifleman and retired United States Steel (Pittsburgh) layman was the proud father of eight children, numerous grandchildren, and a niece.
“Odies was blessed with 19 months (post-diagnosis) to enjoy his family — celebrate the holidays, have picnics in his room, do his physical/ occupational therapy exercises with (grandson) Tyler, cheer for the Steelers and 76ers, and dance, especially to the Temptations,” shared Bryant.
The Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina (LCI), which co-hosted the White Ribbon Build, was a valuable resource during Odies’ cancer journey, said Ingraham, and continued to be a source of support and comfort to those he left behind.
“The biggest thing LCI provided was an external support community of other lung cancer survivors/caregivers, advocates, and experts to let us know — we were not alone. When a loved one in your immediate family that lives in your home is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family goes on the cancer journey,” said Ingraham. “When he passed away, they shared with our family a heart-felt condolences card along with water bottles and journals. Journaling really helped all members of the family process our feelings and emotions.”
For five years previous to her stepfather’s diagnosis, Ingraham, through her community outreach work with the DCI Office of Health Equity, had worked closely with Garst and the LCI team on several initiatives to raise awareness about lung cancer, including lung cancer risk assessments and presentations for Women’s Health Awareness Day and Men’s Health Screening events as well as collaborative community forums, both in-person and online.
She hadn't anticipated that her lung cancer advocacy would turn so personal.
On September 18, LCI will host its 15th annual Triangle LUNGe Forward 2 Mile Walk and Celebration — this year with presenting sponsor Duke Raleigh Hospital — on the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.
“This will be a day to raise awareness and honor everyone who has been impacted by the disease,” said Paige Humble, executive director of LCI.
Ingraham has already registered to participate and plans “a respectable fast-paced-cross country walk” in loving memory of her stepfather.
White Ribbon 2020
Join Us at the Triangle LUNGe Forward 2 Mile Walk & Celebration !
Date & Time
Sept. 18 at 8 a.m.
North Carolina Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd, Raleigh, NC
The safe and family-friendly celebration will have something for all ages, including music, exhibitors, dancing, kids’ activities and much more.
In addition to attending the in-person event, there are virtual walk and "lounge for lung cancer" options for those who would like to join in and show their support from a distance. All lung cancer survivors receive complimentary registration.
Thoracic oncologist Jennifer Garst, MD, will speak at the event as a representative of presenting sponsor Duke Raleigh Hospital.
*Stephanie Roberson, patient service associate, Duke Cancer Center Raleigh, is team captain of this combined Duke Cancer Institute/Duke Raleigh Hospital team