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Lung cancer patients say: 'We won't back down'

Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down” has become a fight song for Ginny Hicks and Rick Rose. Both are in a battle with Stage 4 lung cancer. To keep one another’s spirits high, the two sign off every text, email or phone conversation with the words: “We won’t back down.”

In just a year, Rose’s cancer has metastasized into bone cancer of the scapula. His adrenal gland is also compromised.

While the circumstances are horrible, Rose says, “life goes on.”

“I am not going to give up.”

Hicks won’t let herself be dragged down by what she calls “the ebbs and flows” of her cancer.

The edges of her tumor are growing, pushing on her airways, which leaves her short of breath and winded after doing routine yard work, such as raking leaves.

She says her radiologist told her that the “white fluffy” specks seen on a recent scan means her lung “is not happy.”

She’s also waiting the results of a biopsy of a spot on her liver.

Both Hicks and Rose are grandparents of young boys. They remind each other that despite the setbacks, they plan to see their grandkids graduate from high school and to dance at their weddings.

In the meantime, the two are organizing a support group for others battling lung cancer.

The Lung Cancer Awareness and Support Group — one of only two in the state and the only one south of Portland — will meet for the first time from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, in Room 106 in the Smullin Center at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, 2825 Barnett Road.

The group will continue to meet on the first Wednesday of each month.

Hicks says they want to help others navigate their cancer journey from hearing the “C-word” to undergoing radiation, chemotherapy or immunotherapy to fighting to beat the odds.

Everyone’s journey is different, “but, there are a lot of commonalities,” she says.

The day-to-day survival mode often also includes negotiating with insurance companies, balancing finances to cover mounting medical bills, and staying up-to-date with the latest “drug cocktails.”

“It’s important to band together to help one another face (the cancer) one day at a time,” says Hicks.

She adds that the Lung Cancer Alliance promotes joining a support group — “those who do live longer,” she says.

“It helps to have someone to talk to,” says Rose.

He says having an ally like Hicks has helped him “not sit and pout” about his diagnosis or the possibility of a life cut short.

“I have a lot of living yet,” he says. “I will continue living and hopefully help others deal with this issue.”

Forming a support group has long been on Hicks’ wish list.

After her own diagnosis four years ago, she has become an advocate for lung cancer awareness.

Hicks has spoken at Asante’s “Shine a Light on Lung Cancer” events and traveled to Washington D.C. to attend the Lung Cancer Alliance Summit. She’s lobbied for Congress to pump more dollars into lung cancer research at the National Institutes of Health.

“Research is so important,” she says. “This cancer has a way of mutating ... it finds its way to get around the drugs.”

Hicks’ campaign for lung cancer awareness was featured in the Mail Tribune in November 2017.

Fighting lung cancer, she believes, should become a health priority.

One in 16 people in the United States will be diagnosed with lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s estimated that there will be 234,030 new cases by the end of 2018.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among men and women. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

Yet, only 6 percent of the federal funds spent on cancer research is spent on lung cancer research.

Lung cancer has been the leading cancer killer of women since 1987, killing almost twice as many women as breast cancer.

Hicks says she’s written “Good Morning America” for the last three years during its “breast cancer blitz.”

“And, I have gotten nothing in reply,” she says. “It’s frustrating.”

More awareness would save more lives, she adds.

Despite the very serious prognosis, some people with early stage lung cancer are cured. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 430,000 people alive today have been diagnosed with lung cancer at some point.

The stigma that smokers bring the disease on themselves is a hurdle Hicks would like overcome.

While active smoking is responsible for close to 90 percent of lung cancer cases, about 10 percent can be attributed to exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, radon or asbestos, and outdoor air pollution.

Hicks and Rose, both now in their early 60s, are never-smokers. Neither thought themselves to be candidates for the disease.

Rose had no idea that a nagging cough during summer 2017 was a warning sign of lung cancer.

Like the most recent summer, the Rogue Valley was plagued that year with smoky conditions due to wildfires in Southern and Northern California. Rose attributed his issues to air pollution.

He wasn’t terribly concerned until he started coughing up blood.

A series of breathing tests, CT scans and biopsies between August and September 2017 were inconclusive. After a PET scan “lit up like a lightbulb” that October, Rose received the bad news: Both lungs were full of tumors and the lymph nodes in his left upper chest were affected.

Rose was told he had Stage 3 lung cancer.

A supervisor of the mechanical and maintenance department for the Medford School District and a former millworker, Rose now believes exposure to asbestos or particulates in and around the mills may have caused the disease.

After several rounds of pinpoint radiation treatment and courses of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, Rose was told that the cancer had spread to his scapula. The tumors there are relentless and rapidly growing.

Now at Stage 4, he has been taken off immunotherapy and has started a new drug cocktail, he says.

Rose knows his prognosis is grim.

The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 56 percent for cases detected when the disease remains localized within the lungs. However, only 16 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. Once tumors spread to other organs, the five-year survival rate is only 5 percent.

“No way am I going to be a statistic,” says Rose. “I am going to live with this as long as the doctors can help me maintain.”

Because of fatigue, side effects of various drug therapies and the loss of range of motion in his left arm, Rose will retire and go on permanent disability at the end of this year. He’s looking forward to quality time with this wife and his grandsons and “cruising the mountains” around his home in Prospect.

Rose is holding on to the hope that “the next new, greatest drug could be a week away.”

Through the support group, he says he wants “to lift up others with the same hope.”

The support group is free and open to the public. Registration is not required.

For more information, phone Hicks at 541-261-8130 or Rose at 541-944-5613.

Reach Grants Pass freelancer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune{ } Rick Rose and Ginny Hicks are starting a lung cancer support group at the Smullin Center at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center.