A Family's Mission to Combat Lung Cancer

ByABC News via logo
January 10, 2006, 8:45 AM

Jan. 10, 2006— -- In September 2004, Susan DeWitt was at a Colorado mall with her youngest child when she passed a group of teenagers smoking in the parking lot. Usually, DeWitt would just pass by, but this time she stopped and asked whether there was anything she could say or do that would persuade the teens to give up smoking.

Predictably, the kids spouted off a few wisecracks, insisting they would quit when they wanted.

But when DeWitt asked whether they would quit if they saw a documentary made by their peers about what it's like to watch a parent die of lung cancer, the teens quieted down. One finally spoke up. "I don't smoke because my mom has lung cancer from cigarettes," he said. The other teens agreed that might move them to quit smoking.

DeWitt left the parking lot inspired. Within days, she asked her two teenagers -- Cody, 19, and Gabrielle, 13 -- to document her own slow death at the hands of lung cancer and the devastating effect it had on their family.

DeWitt started smoking casually in high school, when she and her friends used to laugh at adults who told them every cigarette would take 10 minutes off their lives. She quit smoking during her pregnancy with Cody in 1985, but resumed smoking the day he was born. She quit again during her pregnancy with Gabrielle in 1992, then smoked infrequently until 1997. She's had no cigarettes since 1997.

In 2004, DeWitt went to the emergency room with chest pains. A CT scan found a tumor in her lung. It was diagnosed as stage 4 lung cancer on Jan. 9, 2004. She was 39 years old.

DeWitt said she and her husband, Randy, knew from the moment she was diagnosed that they would do something to raise awareness about lung cancer. But first, DeWitt had to deal with her own treatment. Surgery failed to remove the diseased portion of her lung because the cancer had spread. She underwent chemo and after awhile she started to develop headaches. Imaging found they were caused by small tumors in her brain that had metastasized from her lung cancer.

In September 2005, DeWitt set up a video camera in each of her teenager's rooms and left them so her kids could talk in total privacy. The video diaries were then edited together with video from DeWitt's treatment -- including when the whole family helped her shave her head -- and family photos. The documentary was set to music with a few spare title cards showing statistics on smoking and lung cancer.

Cody, a student at the University of Northern Colorado, is clearly the star of the 25-minute documentary. He speaks movingly about his mother and his greatest fear that his two younger sisters will not have her as they grow up.

"My mom watched me graduate from high school. It's the greatest feeling watching them sit in the stands, cheering me on when they called my name to get my diploma," Cody said. "And I want her there when I graduate college and I go out in the real world. But more importantly, most of all, I want my younger sisters to have a mom waiting for them after they get their diploma, helping them through all the hard times that they're going to have."

Cody admits to having smoked with his high school buddies in the documentary, but has not touched one since his mother's diagnosis. He says some of his friends continue to smoke. Gabrielle said none of her friends smokes.

"So I hope I can stop you from smoking before you miss out on life, too," Gabrielle says on the documentary. "And you go through what my mom has gone through. And you put your family and friends through this, too."

DeWitt said the documentary -- "Through My Children's Eyes" -- taught her that her children had "unbelievable hearts."

She's hoping that they will touch the hearts of other teens, and that the video will one day be played in every junior high and high school in Colorado.

Roughly four out of five people diagnosed with stage four lung cancer die within five years. More than half die within a year of diagnosis, and 75 percent die within two years.

DeWitt -- one of only 3 percent of lung cancer patients who got the disease under the age of 45 -- has defied the odds by surviving two years since diagnosis.

DeWitt is intimately aware of these statistics, but she said she did not have the courage to ask the doctor how long he thought she had to live. She told her family they could ask her anything except her survival rate.

Currently, DeWitt's cancer is "stable," and she says she wants to make the most of the time she has left.

Her children say the whole family is closer because of their mom's cancer, but they are brutally honest about the more negative effects of the disease on the documentary.

"They always say that the hardest thing for a parent to do is bury your child," Cody said on the documentary. "But the hardest thing for a kid to do is watch your parents die. Slowly. It's unbelievable and it's just horrible."

To contact the Susan L. DeWitt Foundation for Extended Breath, e-mail susandewitt@aol.com.