Martha Zoller lost her mother and sister to lung cancer.
The two women were diagnosed within two months of each other in 2008. Two years later, they both died from the disease.
Neither woman smoked.
Zoller spoke Tuesday evening at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville during the hospital’s inaugural lung cancer awareness event.
“There’s a lot of work that has to be done when it comes to lung cancer,” Zoller said. “You see that from the numbers. We haven’t seen any improvement in lung cancer outcomes that we’ve had in other cancers where we’ve put our whole heart behind it and all of our work behind it. But we want to see that. It’s time.”
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and the commemorative event’s purpose was to increase awareness of the disease that affects people of all ages, sexes, races, economic backgrounds and more.
“There’s not a lot of information about it, because it’s considered kind of a shameful cancer,” said Angie Caton, a registered nurse at the medical center. “But about 15 percent of people with lung cancer that die of it did not smoke.”
In 2014 alone, 267 people received a lung cancer diagnosis at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, according to Caton, and each year, the disease kills more people than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.
Caton said it’s important to raise awareness about lung cancer, so victims don’t feel blamed.
“If you had colon cancer, would a person say to you, ‘Why didn’t you eat a high-fiber diet?’” she said. “You wouldn’t blame someone for their colon cancer, but people are quicker to blame or comment when it comes to lung cancer.”
Zoller called lung cancer “a silent killer.”
“I think, when we discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer, we thought we’d closed the book and we’d just get everybody to quit smoking,” Zoller said. “We have made great progress in getting people to quit, but there are a lot of other causes for different types of lung cancer.”
The event Tuesday included a silent walk through the Nell Prayer Garden, a tribute to the late Nell Whelchel Wiegand, chair emeritus of the Medical Center Foundation, who died after a lung cancer diagnosis.
During the walk, attendees carried small candles and Caton rang a bell 267 times, one for each person diagnosed with the disease in the area last year.
Zoller and Caton said they hope to make the awareness event an annual thing, and Zoller expressed her gratitude to the hospital for hosting.
“It means a lot to me and my family, because it’s been something that touched our lives,” she said. “My mother and my sister never smoked, and the type of lung cancer they had was not related. So there are still a lot of questions out there.”