In the summer of 2011, just a week after Margot Cohen celebrated her 15th birthday, she found herself holding her mother Rhonda’s hand as she died from lung cancer.
Rhonda had been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer just two months earlier, after consulting a doctor about a persistent cough, some blood clots and some heart problems.
“I had no idea that she had less than a 10 percent chance of survival,” said Cohen, now an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, but originally from Maryland. “I was under the impression that she was going to be OK.”
Cohen was working as a counselor-in-training at a local Jewish Community Center day camp when her father came to pick her up one morning to take her to the hospital, telling her it did not look like her mother would make it through the day.
“We went back to the hospital and a social worker was there, and it started to hit me,” Cohen recalled. “I kept walking in and out of my mother’s room, not knowing what to do. I just kept telling her I loved her, because I wanted that to be the last thing that she heard. And I’m 99 percent sure that it was.”
After Rhonda died, Cohen again addressed her mother.
“I said, ‘I promise to honor you in some way,’” Cohen said. “And I told her I was going to become a doctor.”
Cohen is making good on both promises.
Currently pre-med at Pitt, she plans to become a pediatric oncologist. And, as a more immediate tribute to her mom, she is organizing Pittsburgh’s first Breathe Deep event, a 3K walk in Schenley Park to raise money for the LUNGevity Foundation for cancer research. The walk will be held on Sunday, March 22, at 10:15 a.m., with registration and other activities commencing at 9 a.m.
Cohen first heard of LUNGevity through a friend from BBYO who lost her own mother to lung cancer and told Cohen of a LUNGevity fundraising walk in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall. Cohen not only participated in the walk in Washington that year, but also arranged to bring her high school choir to the event, where it performed the national anthem and Elton John’s “Your Song.”
Cohen participated in the Washington event the following two years as well — raising more than $8,000 for lung cancer research — and arranging for her school’s choir to sing. Naturally, when she arrived in Pittsburgh last fall as a freshman, she started making plans to take her university a cappella choir, the VoKols, to Washington to perform at the fundraising walk this year.
But when she started looking at the logistics of traveling to Washington by bus from Pittsburgh, the timing was problematic, and she realized that she just couldn’t make it work.
So, she decided to bring an event to Pittsburgh.
Cohen emailed Beth Stern, the vice president of community engagement for the LUNGevity Foundation, writing, “I’m only 18, but I think I can put together a fantastic event,” she recounted. She was surprised when Stern gave her the green light.
LUNGevity is a nonprofit that was founded in 2001 in Chicago by seven lung cancer patients. Since its inception, it has raised millions of dollars for the prevention and treatment of lung cancer, which claims more lives than breast, prostate, colorectal and pancreatic cancer combined. Its mission is to improve survival rates from the disease, which affects one out of every 15 people in the United States during their lifetime.
About 65 percent of all new lung cancer diagnoses are among people who have never smoked or are former smokers, said Cohen.
LUNGevity, Stern said, has become the largest funder of lung cancer research. To date, it has raised more than $20 million through its programs, which are all initiated by local volunteers like Cohen.
“When you get a grassroots group together to raise money and awareness, that’s when you start to see a difference in survivorship,” Stern said, noting former first lady Betty Ford’s success in raising awareness of breast cancer when she went public with her own diagnosis in the mid-1970s.
“The reason October is pink,” Stern said, “is because people banded together and said, ‘Enough.’ That’s what we’re doing for lung cancer; and it’s really working.”
LUNGevity will sponsor 60 events across the country this year, including the inaugural event in Pittsburgh this month and an inaugural event in Greensburg on Saturday, April 25, organized by Judy Kalich, who lost her aunt Vera Moog to lung cancer in December 2014.
“When my aunt was diagnosed in March last year, I went straight to Google,” said Kalich, 31. “I was frustrated to learn that lung cancer gets very little attention, despite it being the top cancer killer.
“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this,” Kalich continued. “My goal is to draw attention to this awful disease and to donate as much as we can to fund research.”
The Greensburg Breathe Deep event — which will be a 5K fun walk/run — will be held at Twin Lakes and will include crafts for children led by representatives from the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and other activities.
Cohen’s Pittsburgh event will include a performance by the VoKols; the Heinz Chapel choir will sing the national anthem.
Although the walk is still a couple weeks away, Cohen already has raised more than $35,000, far surpassing her $25,000 goal. More than 200 people have registered to participate, including a Hillel Jewish University Center team that calls itself the “Hillel Holy Walkamolies.”
Cohen said she definitely intends to organize a Pittsburgh Breathe Deep event again next year.
“It’s been a great learning experience,” she said. “And I want to do whatever I can to be a part of curing cancer.”
For more information concerning the Breathe Deep Pittsburgh 3K visit lungevity.org/pittsburgh. For information about the Breathe Deep Greensburg 5K, visit lungevity.org/greensburg.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.