I choose to make a difference

By Lynn Clark

As Gary Zollinger sat in his bed at University of Colorado Hospital in May 2006, he said to his wife Thelissa, “Honey, we are going to do something about this. We are going to make a difference. This disease has gone too far with no early diagnosis test.”

Gary’s 2004 diagnosis of stage IV bronchiolalveolar carcinoma (BAC) showed cancer progression in both lungs with no options for surgical treatment. He had little response to standard and cutting-edge drugs, so he pursued a double lung transplant, a procedure that had been performed in only a handful of BAC cases. On May 19, 2005—Thelissa’s 55th birthday—a life-preserving transplant became reality.

“He told me, ‘We’re going to set up this endowment,’” Thelissa says. “When he told me the dollar amount, my jaw dropped. His job was going to be severed in November. But there was no changing his mind. He wanted to give enough that was substantial.”

Gary’s $2 million goal meant making a substantial personal gift and raising money. They planned a 5k run, recruiting friends and family members to help organize it. Gary orchestrated it from the family room couch.

“He refused—just refused—to let cancer take down his ability to be a force for good,” Thelissa says. “We called the race the Gift of Life and Breath, because that’s what Gary was given, for 16 months. A gift.”

Gary became friends with and a deep admirer of Dr. Michael Weyant, associate professor of Surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Dr. Weyant did his transplant, and the two men often talked of the problem of lung cancer early detection. Dr. Weyant had interest in developing a test, and he became the endowment’s beneficiary.

The first race, held at Cherry Creek State Park on May 19, 2006, garnered 377 runners and raised $93,750. Gary, who was becoming more ill, miraculously made it to the event, where people cheered and honored him. Just four months later, he succumbed to his illness.Thelissa knew she had to keep the race going in Gary ’s memory.

“You have a choice, whatever cards you’re given in life,” she says. “You can either look at them and put your head in the sand and say all is lost, what’s the use, or you can make the best of what you’ve been given, and as Gary said, be a force for good. I choose to make a difference.”

The second year brought 600 runners to Cherry Creek State Park . In May 2009, the race moved to the Anschutz Medical Campus and 732 runners finished the race.

“To be able to stand at that start line and there is the cancer center where Gary was diagnosed, there is the infusion center where he was treated, there is the hospital where he passed away, and the research tower where we will help find an early detection test—it was full circle for me,” Thelissa says. “This whole idea, this dream, this goal that he wanted, to be there in the cradle of where it started was a wonderful thing.”

The Gift of Life and Breath 5k has raised almost $400,000 for early lung cancer detection research to date. Dr. Weyant is collaborating with Dr. Kim O’Neill of Brigham University on a new test for lung sputum.

But the program has gone beyond fundraising in Thelissa’s heart. She is a woman on a mission to educate not only the public, but people with government purse strings about the issues surrounding lung cancer. In March, she visited Colorado ’s senatorial delegation offices in Washington to lobby for the passage of the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act, which makes lung cancer a priority.

“Lung cancer research received less than 5 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s budget in 2007, but it causes a third of cancer-related deaths,” she reports. “Lung cancer kills almost twice as many women as breast cancer and more than three times more men than prostate cancer. Early detection is absolutely essential in fighting this disease, and research funding is critical.”

She gets upset at the notion that lung cancer funding is less important because it generally stems from the choice to smoke cigarettes.

“Your good health choices are not a guarantee that you will not get lung cancer,” she says. “Gary never had a cigarette in his entire life. No one in his home ever smoked. He died from lung cancer.”

Thelissa never thought of herself as a fundraiser or an advocate before Gary was diagnosed. Now, it’s a big part of her life’s mission.

“I’ll probably live to be 100,” she says. “I will be a squeaky wheel for a long time. I can carry what Gary started and be a voice for those who are dying from this disease.”

Learn about the 2010 race at http://www.thegiftoflifeandbreath.com.