Q & A: Jennifer Melton on Bringing the Free To Breathe 5K to Short Pump

This coming Saturday, Short Pump Town Center will be host to Richmond’s first Free To Breathe 5K fun run and walk. The event, which aims to raise funds and awareness for lung cancer, was brought here by local author and entrepreneur Jennifer Melton, who sat down with Downtown Short Pump for a Q & A about […]

This coming Saturday, Short Pump Town Center will be host to Richmond’s first Free To Breathe 5K fun run and walk. The event, which aims to raise funds and awareness for lung cancer, was brought here by local author and entrepreneur Jennifer Melton, who sat down with Downtown Short Pump for a Q & A about her personal connection and what she hopes participants will get out of the event.

Downtown Short Pump: What is your personal background that caused you to want to be involved in this event?

Jennifer Melton: Mom and Dad (Joyce and Steve Salmon) met when they were 13.  They got married while Dad was serving in the Air Force, which he was very proud of, when they were 21. They were married for 40 years.  Needless to say they did not know of a life without each other.  Dad battled emphysema, COPD and spells of bronchitis for years but he was otherwise extremely healthy, physically fit and active.

In the fall of ‘07 he had bronchitis again which turned into pneumonia and lingered into the New Year.  He had multiple chest x-rays but nothing was detected as it was assumed what they saw was the damage from emphysema, COPD and pneumonia. Early spring of 2009 he started having “watery vision” and migraines which prompted another visit to his primary doctor who suggested it might be ocular migraine and sent him to an optometrist.  Again, nothing was detected. The migraines continued along with the watery vision and then lapses in memory, i.e. trouble finding the words to even tell a story.  He was 59, so it was chalked off to old age.

In June he went back to the doctor and the doctor ordered a CT scan of his brain because he was still suffering from migraines. They saw something suspect and ordered a CT scan of his chest. On June 11th, my 39th birthday, Dad was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer with brain metastases, 5 in fact.

After a biopsy of the mass on his lung it was determined to be inoperable. We started traditional treatments of chemo and radiation. We were never presented with a treatment plan, options or alternatives, nothing.  We had no idea what we were faced with or what to expect outside of what very little experience we had with cancer and the rumor that he would lose his hair and the chemo would make him very sick. The truth was, Dad’s lungs were already so badly damaged, he really didn’t stand a chance.  The brain metastases put him at risk of having a stroke, so he could no longer drive and had to take an indefinite leave of absence from work.

Fortunately for mom, she was able to come and go from work to make his appointments.  He finished his treatments in September and his condition never improved. The oncologist made an assumption that it was in his spine and called in hospice.  My sister, Stephanie Weis, and I sought a second opinion. It was then we found out how serious dad’s condition was and now his body was too weak to fight.

Dad spent months in and out of the hospital with lung related issues until December 5, 2008. In January, Stephanie and I found the National Lung Cancer Partnership. The following year, we applied for their annual Summit and were selected out of hundreds nationwide to attend.  We spent almost a week in Tampa, FL where we were trained on lung cancer. We toured the Moffitt Cancer Center and went behind the scenes to see what the scientists are studying and learning about cancer cells, how to lobby and how to be an advocate.

We came back feeling empowered and educated and ready to make a difference here in Richmond in dad’s memory. During this time we also co-authored  and I illustrated “Pink Sky At Night,” originally as a way to tell our young children about their grandfather.  We presented the manuscript to the CEO of Mascot Books, Naren Aryal, and he cried.  As a father of two young girls, he was especially touched by the story.  It is a story of a lighthouse (dad) and 3 tugboats (mom, Steph and I) and a storm that hits the harbor.  It is a story about weathering life’s storms, of life’s unexpected turns that force you to sink or learn to swim. We give a portion of our proceeds to the NLCP for lung cancer research.

DTSP: This is the first year for the event, correct?

Jennifer: This is the first Free To Breathe event in Virginia taking place in our hometown of Richmond! We are very proud to be involved with bringing this event to our hometown. Lung cancer kills more women and men in Virginia than any other cancer, more than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined, yet research remains grossly underfunded. This event is a great way for survivors and advocates to come together and support the fight and 100% of proceeds from FTB will go to research, awareness and education of the number 1 cancer killer!

DTSP: Do you have a fundraising goal?

Jennifer: Our team, “Crushing Cancer,  Salmon Style” has a $2,500.00 goal, which we hope to make. We are just about halfway there! We want to win this for Dad, he never did anything halfway!

DTSP: What do you want to be participants’ “take-away” from this event in terms of the overall experience?

Jennifer: Sadly, the assumption people immediately make is that lung cancer is a smoker’s disease and when I talk about Dad that is what they ask– “did he smoke?” Well the fact is, if you breathe air you are at risk. While, yes, smoking does increase your risk, that should not have any impact on the treatment you receive and in the end it’s the patient who suffers. These people deserve compassion, no matter how they got this disease. How they got the disease or whether or not it could have been prevented should not matter, whether they smoke, used to smoke or never smoked at all.

My sister, a nurse educator, often says, “no one lives a perfect life.” We eat fast food, forget to wear sun screen, even speed at times while driving.  All of these things  potentially putting us at risk of something that could have been avoided had we made healthy or safer choices, but we don’t always do that, we’ re human.  Whether you make what someone perceives the be the “right” choice doesn’t change the fact that these people deserve compassion and the best treatment while living out their lives.

Unfortunately, this stigma has a direct impact on the lack of funding for research, less money goes towards research and fewer researchers choose this field. Fewer advances are made in treatments and fewer people will survive as a result. It is a vicious cycle. But we can help!

We chose to have a Free To Breathe event here in Richmond, the first one in Virginia because lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in men and women here in Virginia.  The money raised we raise will go towards, research, education and advocacy. Richmond is a very active community and past walk/runs that I have attended have been well received and attended. This is a family friendly and everyone can participate whether you walk or run.

Richmonders in general are generous and supportive. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and encouragement! We have a wonderful committee, all who have been touched by lung cancer and are passionate about “funding” the cure. I think it is groundbreaking that Richmond, VA, rich in tobacco history and home to Philip Morris and Altria, is taking a stand against lung cancer and standing up for our neighbors who have or have had lung cancer!

DTSP: What are all the event details people need to know?

Jennifer: You can visit www.freetobreathe.org to register, donate and volunteer on March 12th. Registration begins on event day at 7:00 a.m. The welcome and opening ceremony is at 8:00 and the fun run/walk begins at 8:30. A memorial walk will also take place at 9:00. A Health Fair will be held 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Registration is $35 for the fun run/walk and $30 for the memorial walk.

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