She was in eighth grade when she found out her father, a lifelong smoker, had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in 2007. After his passing in 2012, 24-year-old Elaine Natoli of Mount Pleasant decided to make lung cancer awareness part of her life.
This week Elaine is heading to Washington, D.C. to send Congress a message by sharing her personal connection with America's No. 1 cancer killer of men and women, according to the American Lung Association. As South Carolina's representative, she will join a group of lung cancer survivors, caregivers and advocates from every state to research funding and protection for patients with pre-existing conditions during the Fourth annual American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE Advocacy Day on Wednesday, April 10. More specifically, Elaine and colleagues will fight for the continued investment in biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health so there can be better early detection, treatments and cures.
Her mission began because of her father's, Philip Frederick Natoli, condition but it didn't stop there. In 2013, on the one-year anniversary of Philip's passing, she was surfing the web and came across the American Lung Association's Lung Force Run/Walk which is held at Folly Beach every November. That year she decided to run and it was coincidentally scheduled for Nov. 8, her father's birthday.
"He was a fighter so I'm going to be too and I will be for all of the other people who are still fighting this disease," she said. "I want to do everything I can to make sure no one has to battle this again."
After observing hundreds of people wearing turquoise at the run, she quickly realized that she was not the only one who had lost a loved one to lung cancer. Right after the run she signed up for an internship to join the cause. Seven years after her father’s passing, Elaine is honored to be one of the forces behind the LUNG FORCE initiative.
"It's just so moving," she continued. "I've met so many amazing people. Just to hear their stories it's just so powerful and makes you want to get involved and help support as many of these people as you can."
Elaine says the opportunity to interact with lung cancer survivors and caregivers nationwide will be the most motivating aspect she's yet to experience since being involved with LUNG FORCE.
"We all have a connection that brings us together. Everyone's there to fight for something that they've lost." she said.
In the early stages of her father's diagnosis, Elaine admitted she was unfamiliar with the disease and strived to understand the ins and outs of the disease. After finding out that Philip's tumors were inoperable and would require chemotherapy and Gamma Knife Radiation, Elaine and her family committed to commuting back-and-forth from their home in Hilton Head to Charleston so he could be treated at the Medical University of South Carolina.
"I've always been philanthropic in a way. I've always liked volunteering and helping out," she said. "Once I found the Lung Association it just kind of clicked for me. I realized this is what I'm passionate about, it has a connection to me."
Through her father's five-year long battle, Philip's cancer would go through stages of being stagnant to active. First, the cancer spread from his lungs to his spine and he underwent spinal surgery. From there, his cancer spread to his brain which is when he underwent brain surgery.
During all of this, Philip tried his best not to miss out on family functions. He was always in the stands cheering Elaine and her siblings on at sports games, posing for prom photos and was even there to walk beside Elaine during homecoming at Hilton Head High School.
Elaine says one of the saddest images of her father's health declining was when he was too weak to hold up a cigarette. She witnessed the lasting effects of a habit her father picked up at the age of 14.
The summer before Elaine left for college, her father was put under hospice care after his cancer had spread to his fluids. As she left home to attend her freshman year at College of Charleston, she knew it was probably the last time she would see her father before things regressed.
The Natolis said their final goodbyes to their father, only 65 years old, on the morning of Oct. 28, 2012. Elaine says not a day goes by where she isn't intrigued about the disease that took her father too soon.
Throughout her involvement she's come to know that lung cancer doesn't discriminate. Elaine knows those who have never smoked a day in their life and developed the same afflictions as habitual smokers.
Secondhand smoke is Elaine's biggest fear for her family members which is virtually impossible to avoid in public vicinities on a daily basis. As for friends of her's who still smoke she tries her best, without being too pushy, to inform them about the consequences of their actions.
"I wish I could tell everyone not to do it but of course people will do what they want. You have to think about the future, your children your peers and your friends. You're not just hurting yourself, you're hurting everyone around you," she said while reflecting on the long-term implications of her father's smoking addiction.
To learn more about the American Lung Association’s Lung Force, visit LUNGFORCE.org.
Facts (American Lung Association)
- Nearly 250,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer each year.
- Lung cancer kills 391 people per day − approximately 16 deaths per hour.
- In the last 40 years, the rate of women dying from lung cancer has increased 59 percent.
- Lung cancer accounts for the smallest percentage (4) of survivors of all the major cancers in America.