In April Jill McKay felt a pain in her calf.
At age 46, slim and in terrific shape, McKay thought it was a pulled muscle.
Turns out, it was the first sign of blood clots in her legs and lungs -- the first symptom of the inoperable lung cancer that would take her life by the end of July.
"It all happened so fast," said Jill's husband, Mike, her sweetheart since the sixth grade. "She didn't even have the chance to respond to treatment."
Jill was diagnosed on June 10 and was dead six weeks later.
The summer was a whirlwind of medical care and then profound grief for Mike. But in the months that have followed, he grew curious about the disease that had robbed him of his wife and his two adult children of their mother.
"I was stunned to learn that lung cancer is the leading cause of death among cancers," he said. "Yet it receives far less attention and far less research money than other cancers."
That has been especially clear this month, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when even NFL players donned pink ribbons -- and socks and helmets.
That's great. Everyone knows what the pink ribbon means. But I, for one, had to look up the color for the awareness ribbon for lung cancer: It's pearl.
Tammy Allred, an oncology nurse at UNC Hospitals who works with lung cancer patients, sums up the difference in a single word: Stigma.
The first question every person with lung cancer hears: Did you smoke?
"People think that everyone who gets lung cancer was a smoker, so they deserve it," she said, noting that some of her patients whose cancer has spread to other organs prefer to say they have liver cancer or lymphoma rather than lung cancer.
"But the fact is, we're seeing more and more nonsmokers," Allred said. That includes people such as Jill, who smoked but kicked the habit decades ago, as well as "neversmokers."
The other tricky thing with lung cancer is that it is a silent killer. Most people aren't diagnosed until it's too late, Allred said.
The disease's survival rate depends on how soon it's caught. "Life expectancy has improved," she said, "But it's still grim."
Both Allred and McKay have gotten involved in an organization devoted to changing all of the above. The stigma, the deficit of research, the awareness.
It's called the N.C. Lung Cancer Partnership, the first state chapter of the national group. Sandy Oehler, director of event planning for the North Carolina chapter and a lung cancer survivor herself, said her hope is to draw more attention to lung cancer and its toll on people -- smokers or not.
"When we hear that someone has diabetes, we don't say, 'Oh, did you eat poorly?'" Oehler said.
Oehler invites everyone to visit nationallungcancerpartner ship.org/NC/ .
The group is hosting its third annual Free to Breathe 5K and 1K run and walk in Raleigh on Nov. 7, as well as similar events in Boone (Oct. 31) and the Triad (Nov. 14).
Mike McKay will be there for the Raleigh race. His team will run in honor of his wife. It's called Team Jill.
email@example.com or 919-829-4828