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06 Feb 2019

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Southbank sisters fighting stigma

Local sisters Sacha and Stephanie Koltun are on a mission to break down stigma associated with lung-related illness.

It comes after their mother Rhonda, a non-smoker and former athlete, passed away in November last year following a two-and-half year battle with lung cancer.

Given Rhonda and husband Toli, who had met playing basketball at a national level, had taught their daughters the importance of exercise and leading healthy lifestyles growing up, accepting their mother’s cancer diagnosis had been difficult to comprehend in itself.

Carrying a persistent cough for some time, Rhonda eventually visited a doctor at the request of her family in April 2016. Even at that point, Sacha said a lung cancer diagnosis had not been on the radar at all.

“To hear it was lung cancer was really confusing and I guess we had to address our own stigmas of what we thought was associated with lung cancer. We were just so confused. Mum never smoked so why has she got this diagnosis?” Sacha said.

“It challenges your own beliefs and I think that all of the anti-smoking campaigns have done a really good job in awareness but then I guess it’s the treatment and access to research and this feeling that people have brought it on themselves.”

Upon hearing the news, Sacha and Stephanie said people would often immediately say things like “I didn’t know your mum smoked,” when, in fact, she had never smoked in her life. It quickly became a growing point of frustration for the family.

According to the Lung Foundation, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the country (responsible for 18.9 per cent of all cancer deaths) and the fifth most commonly diagnosed.

It is also has the lowest five-year survival rate of the five most commonly diagnosed cancers at 17 per cent. Access to treatments, along with their cost, remain the biggest challenges. In 2019, 9198 Australians will die from the disease.

With Sacha residing at Quay West and Steph at Riverside Quay, living in the same neighbourhood has proven to be valuable for the sisters during what has been, and continues to be, a difficult period.

While her mother remained positive and resolute right until the end, Steph said the family had been able to see first-hand just how a significant lack of investment into research was impacting lung cancer’s poor survival rates.

“What they thought mum would react to she actually didn’t react to so there would be a small sign of success but then after a while the growth would continue and accelerate,” Stephanie said.

“I think mum was a little bit rare in that case. But she would say ‘I am rare, I am special!’ She was always positive no matter whatever news she received.”

While the experience has taken its toll on the family, they are looking to use the tragedy as an opportunity to change the conversation about lung cancer not just in Australia but also around the world.

According to the Lung Foundation, lung cancer can affect anyone, not just smokers. One in four women and one in 10 men diagnosed with cancer have no history of smoking. Yet one in two Australians believe those that have lung cancer are a smoker.

“Research shows that if you drink alcohol than you’re more likely to develop a cancer but there’s no discriminating against people because they enjoy a glass of wine so there’s a lot of work to do,” Sacha said.

“I guess it’s the same with all of the mental health awareness that was happening 20 years ago and we’re just starting to crack those types of discussions now.”

Both Sacha and Stephanie said they hoped to take on more advocacy work on the issue in the same spirit as their mother, who herself, was renowned for advocating for a lot of change in the community.

“The message from the [Lung] Foundation is that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer and I think that message really needs to be pushed,” Steph said. “No one is in a position that they’re more likely to get it than someone else, whether you smoke or not.”

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