Lung Cancer Connection - Support, Education, Research, Hope

Allison Haake's Story - My Story by Kathy Haake

Allison Haake, as told by her mother, Kathy Haake

Allison Marie Haake, daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin, and friend, is a face of hope, courage, resiliency, love, faith, and one that reflects inner peace and beauty.  Allison is also one of the many faces of lung cancer.

The possibility of such a diagnosis was not even something we would ever imagine as Allison, a 21 year old, healthy college student, began to exhibit signs of fatigue, persistent coughing, and cold or flu-like symptoms. 

We considered many options as she shared over the phone how she felt, or came home from Chicago to “catch up” on rest, relaxation, and home cooked meals.  At times she was out of sorts, but in a matter of a few hours, would return to normal energy levels and find motivation again.  The fluctuating symptoms caused us concern and several doctor visits were in order.  Each time she went to see her physician, a different type of antibiotic was ordered, rest was encouraged, and for a short period of time, she would manage.  That is, until she could not do so any longer.  After eight weeks of “on again, off again” symptoms and unsuccessful prescription treatments, Allison walked many city blocks to a hospital, was admitted, and life changed drastically.  Admitted for pneumonia, a scan was done, revealing a lung mass of some sort, and on October 17th, a cancer diagnosis became her constant companion.  Seventy-seven days later, what we had learned was small cell lung cancer, weakened nearly every crevice of her body, and took her physical form from us.  Allison Marie Haake died at age 21 on January 9, 2007.

I must emphasize that those eleven weeks were focused on living, not dying.  Living came to hold a new definition for Allison, and for all of us who loved her.  We did not read statistics, and if somehow they were shared with us, we would remind Allison that these were not written for her.  There was no prerequisite for any 21 year old with lung cancer.  In fact, doctors from various hospitals in the country were unsure as to the final diagnosis because she matched no criteria from any “typical” lung cancer patient.  Perhaps it was Ewing Sarcoma, perhaps another form of cancer, one that could be treated with certain protocols and in months or years, Allison could resume her “normal” life.  However, none of that was to be, for after several consultations and under the scope of various oncologists, the diagnosis was firm, small cell lung cancer. 

I could begin here and share the journey from a mother’s perspective, from my breaking heart, to the years filled with grief, attempting to live strong and true for my daughters, my family, myself.  I could share, in vivid detail, what life is like once I buried my own child, how I look into the eyes of my husband and older daughter, to witness and feel their pain, only to try to ease it, knowing, however, that I never can.  I could share how each day, in these five years, I have shed tears, inside or outwardly, because she died, but that I also choose to smile because she lived.  I could share so much, but this is Allison’s story, as told through my eyes, MY story is different, I did NOT receive the cancer diagnosis, I did NOT sit for hours in the chemotherapy chair or find myself needing more and more radiation just to sustain life.  This is not MY story, yet it is….

From the moment of diagnosis, Allison would not allow lung cancer to define her.  She was not insulted when others asked her if she smoked, she was not upset when folks attempted to find some REASON for this diagnosis, and, though she could not comprehend it, she didn’t question what was hers to accept.  This gave us our mission, we took our cues from her, and we supported her in every way as she went about her job of healing.  She faced the most aggressive chemotherapy from the first day, asking for all treatment protocols that could possibly help, to be administered as needed.  Her trademark smile rarely wavered, and once she knew that this was nothing she brought on herself, she faced each new day as through it were the best one ever!  She carried Bible scriptures in her pocket to radiation treatment, together, she and I, memorizing them the night before, so that if she got scared, she would have something to lean on.  She learned about God’s medicine, compared to man’s medicines, and held stock in both.  She loved and trusted her oncologist, Dr. Luedke, and her chemotherapy nurse, Lucie, and when the news became what we hoped we would never hear, she never faltered in her respect for them and how they approached her, their patient.

I mentioned that once Allison knew it was nothing she had done, she could fight the fight, come up for air, and fight some more.  After all, she was 21 years old, “strong as a horse” her doctor would say, the “ping pong ball that keeps bouncing back”.  Allison did need that assurance that nothing she could have done would have caused this.  She was a non-smoker in the truest sense of the word, and she was never exposed to second-hand smoke in our home.  She did, however, share with me that she had some late teen cigarettes, or a few when she was out socially.  In telling her doctor this, he gently smiled and shook his head.  He shared the picture once again, a lung that looked, in his words, like “that of a 60 year old smoker”.  He elaborated, “you would have had to smoke many packs a day since the age of two for your lung to even resemble this” and further, “and even if you did, Allison, you would not deserve this”.  It was then that she and I had conversations about smoking and lung cancer, the correlations, and it was then that we began to learn more than we ever thought we would.

I must admit that I was perplexed, maybe even irritated, when the first question many people asked Allison, or us, was, “did she smoke”?”, as if this gave a license to the diagnosis.  I wanted to scream, and still do at times, upon hearing the question over and over again.  But, over time, I learned that, like us, many people are uneducated about lung cancer and the staggering statistics, and maybe it is going to take Allison to help them learn.  Sadly, our family has learned more than we ever imagined, right in the confines of our loving family, and the education has not stopped.  Anyone can read the statistics on their own, but this face, this vibrant, energetic, healthy, sports playing, teacher bound, young woman, who had her whole life ahead of her, reveals more than any of those words can say.

Allison had little time to digest the lung cancer diagnosis before she had to discover there was not much more in the way of treatment that could be done.  There was no time for seminars, education, reading pamphlets, or for digesting treatment protocols, because each day of those eleven weeks, there was something new to endure, face, or treat.  She designed her own awareness plan and curriculum, not about the disease, but about life.  She lived it to the fullest, and boldly, courageously, accepted each new day; the good, the bad, the ugly.  It wasn’t about the quantity, it was about the quality. 

Allison planned to become a teacher.  Her smile widened in the presence of children and she was on her way.  Lung cancer invaded and changed her course.  Her family prefers to say that we didn’t lose her to lung cancer, cancer did not take her from us, she did not die, except in the physical sense.  Allison Haake left a legacy, a smile that is etched in our hearts for eternity, and a glow that guides her living family to do what we must to live each day.  If, by sharing her story, we, SHE, can inspire, educate, or teach someone something about this dreadful disease, then we know it would be pleasing to her.  Perhaps people may begin to ask the right questions, find the funding, remove the stigma, and instead, look at the person through loving eyes, with care and concern, NOT because they may or may not have smoked, NOT because they may or may not “deserve” this cancer, but because they are a human being, deserving of all the respect given to any form of diagnosis.  How our beloved received a small cell lung cancer diagnosis we will never know.  There are no answers to some questions.  We cannot control what is handed to us, what we CAN control, however, is our response.  We CAN do our personal best to help others during similar battles, and we can persevere through trials and tribulations.  We CAN support educational and awareness groups, our choices being Lung Cancer Connection, Lung Cancer Alliance, and National Lung Cancer Partnerships.  We CAN walk or run in the upcoming 5K, bring dollars toward a much needed purpose, and we CAN demand the right to breathe for all.  We CAN, also, stop assuming that lung cancer is a smoker’s cancer.

I believe that Allison would have been an amazing teacher, but I also believe that God must have had deeper, more meaningful plans for her.  I must believe that something bigger and better will come from this one life, this one face of many, this one smile.  I must believe that she is proud, five years to the day of that diagnosis, that her story is being shared, and that just maybe, there will be a message to be heard.