A Free to Breathe participant prepares to walk in memory of her mother. Gardner woman, Nicole Nace will walk in her mom’s memory this year. Submitted photo

Danedri Thompson
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Nichole Nace and Todd Unger, both of Gardner, are hoping the walking they do this weekend will allow families in the future to do something their mom couldn’t do – beat lung cancer.
The pair, along with brother Christian, of Missouri, will join thousands of others across the country in the fourth annual Free to Breathe Kansas City 5K Run/Walk and Kids’ Dash at Zepi’s Pizza in Leawood on Sept. 25. Coinciding events will take place nationwide to raise funds for lung cancer research and awareness.
Nichole had just turned 21 when her mom was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer in 2007. Her mom, Kim Unger, said doctors had caught the disease early.
“But I think that was just her hiding how bad it really was,” Nichole said.
In a month, Kim was gone. She passed away on Sept. 11, 2007 on a Tuesday morning.
“I got a phone call at school and they told me she only had three days left,” Nichole explained. “She lasted longer than three days. I think she wanted to go at home.”
Kim was released to hospice and freed to go home on a Thursday evening. She died at home on a Tuesday morning – both times hold significance for the family.
Prior to her diagnosis, Kim had moved to a new place where cows grazed in neighboring fields.
“For some weird reason she named one of the cows Thursday Evening and one Tuesday Morning,” Nichole said.
Nichole and her brother, all under the age of 25, made a pact a few years ago to do something once a year to raise awareness for cancer. They lost their father to pancreatic cancer, and Nichole said, her grandmother, Kim’s mom, died of the same cancer Kim had. The family’s history with the disease has Nichole worried about her own future. Only 25, Nichole is already under the care of an internal medicine physician.
“It’s so scary,” she said. “I’m very health conscious. I don’t think there’s any way you can know it’s going to happen, but I’m being more proactive and aware of what’s going on in my body.”
The truly terrifying part is that there’s so little doctors can do for lung cancer patients, she said. Although the disease kills 160,000 Americans each year, lung cancer research is underfunded compared with other major cancers. That has slowed the development of new treatments.
Nichole theorizes that lung cancer doesn’t receive the funding and support of other cancer research because the masses believe that all lung cancer patients were smokers.
“It’s a terrible misconception,” Nichole said. “A large percent of lung cancers occur in people who never smoked a day in their lives.”
For now, the primary treatments for lung cancer remain radiation and chemotherapies.
Radiation treatments are so hard on a person’s body, Nichole said. Although she didn’t survive long enough to do chemotherapy, Nichole said the radiation treatments alone left her mother unrecognizable.
Michael Hartwig, Free to Breathe Kansas City event organizer, said the walk this weekend is about putting one foot in front of the other to create change in the lives of those touched by lung cancer.
“I encourage everyone in Kansas City to join this movement that will help bring the attention and funding to lung cancer that it desperately needs,” he said.
Nichole said many people don’t want to talk about lung cancer or share their stories.
“They think that it can never happen to me, or that their parents can never get cancer,” Nichole said. “You can’t always change things, but you can always try to help people in the future.”
To donate or for more information, visit Freetobreathe.org. To donate to Nichole’s team, named Kim’s Walkers, click the “KC Free to Breathe” link and find the team name. There is also an option to register for Sunday’s walk.