Lung Cancer Awareness Month: A Survivor’s Story

November 16, 2021

Don Gallagher is a lung cancer survivor; a tie-dye-wearing Grandpa who loves his wife, his kids, his grandkids, eating vegan, driving trucks, and his community; and he is a big-time advocate for advancing lung cancer awareness.

In October 2019, Don received a diagnosis of stage 3B lung cancer. He was not, nor had he ever been, a smoker. Yet, there he was, an otherwise hale and hearty 62-year-old man living his best life. In an instant, life as he knew it changed.

The Vital Importance of Community

With an amazing team of doctors and caregivers from Saint Luke’s Hospital, a treatment plan was put into action. Though it was not easy by anyone’s definition, Don attacked his cancer and approached this new reality with strength and purpose, determined to spread the word that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer and to end the stigma that this disease unfortunately carries.

Don and his family are do’ers. They believe that more can be accomplished together than alone. Don met many new people from different walks and paths. There were doctors and nurses; technicians who administered countless scans and tests; family members who became advocates, researchers, and de facto “shoulders” to support and be cried on; and countless strangers who became friends along the way.

Community, as it turns out, was not just a group of people around him who offered help, it was, Don realized, all people whom you notice, whose actions could — and did — make a world of difference in day-to-day existence.

About his newly formed community, Don has this to say: “It’s what kept me alive.”

Navigating a Cancer Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis is confusing. Much of healthcare is confusing. When you’re in the middle of it, you need people by your side to help you through. Don is lucky to have his family, especially his wife who has provided unflagging emotional support and has been instrumental in managing his care and treatment. Grams, as he lovingly refers to her as, is whip-smart, fiercely loyal, and steadfast in her support. The impact of this is never lost on Don.

Don had run an Instagram account since 2018, so knew how to use social media to build his support system. He also appreciated the very real boost he could get from a conversation with a neighbor or even a perfect stranger. A great deal was gleaned from all these relationships, including learning and teaching, introducing and meeting, and discovery and giving.

But even with all the family, friends, and social media contacts he had, there were times when he needed someone to listen to him.

Stacey Aumock: Don’s Care Manager and Chief Listener

Care Managers are an integral part of the Blue KC community. Their responsibilities include assisting with the daily minutiae of care, like navigating insurance claims, coordinating doctors’ visits, and transportation needs, to exploring potential options for recovery with new treatments, studies and protocols. With every patient, however, one thread ties it all together: listening. And this became Stacey’s source of empowerment for Don.

Though Don was fortunate to have an amazing, intelligent, and effective community in place, he credits Stacey as one of his chief listeners. Don said, “What she did for me was bigger than one specific thing; the regular conversations, her constancy, the checking in, and especially the listening made a great difference to me.”

And, from Stacey’s perspective, the benefits of listening were 100% reciprocal. From their conversations, Stacey learned radon was likely a huge determinant. She shared this with another patient who was then able to identify radon was a contributing factor in her own illness and have it mitigated in her own home. Just like that, Don, because of his experience and advocacy, was able to kickstart something vitally important for another person whom he had never met, with Stacey as the conduit.

Advocacy and Education: The White Ribbon Project

Advancing lung cancer awareness is the mission and objective of The White Ribbon Project — a cause near and dear to Don’s heart.

Decades of public health campaigns have left the public undereducated about their risk for developing lung cancer, which has contributed to delayed diagnosis and treatment and perpetuated negative opinions about lung cancer. Don Gallagher and The White Ribbon Project are putting their energy and efforts into changing this.

“It’s for anyone who has lungs.” This is what Don stated, point blank, when asked whom The White Ribbon Project serves. Not just for those contending directly or indirectly with lung cancer — it’s for everyone.

Community brings hope, connection, and survivorship

Don, with his signature eloquence and clarity, says:

“Cancer never quits. It has, however, taught me how to build something. I have a team around me who can help me survive. I will continue to educate others about lung cancer, to advocate, and raise awareness and funding for this terrible disease. I am going to fight to beat lung cancer.”

He goes on to say, “Lung cancer is not a death-sentence like it used to be. Access to new drugs, immunotherapy, and targeted treatments has been a game-changer. With the support from my community, I try to provide hope and connection ­— and, ultimately, I hope, this will save more people — and their communities —from the grasp of this brutal disease.”

Don’s Story is Not His Alone

It’s now part of the story Stacey Aumock tells when she has other lung cancer survivors. It’s part of the story of Heidi and Pierre Onda who founded The White Ribbon project, and of a person on a park bench who might randomly ask Don one sunny day, “What is that White Ribbon you are holding? Tell me about it.” It is the story of the hundreds of people who follow Don on Instagram and Facebook.

Don’s passion, heart, and integrity continue to bring strangers together, loved ones in close, and helps others in this ever-growing community in the fight against lung cancer.