How My Lung Cancer Connection Got Me to Oprah

After my mom passed away in 2006 I created a nonprofit in her name (Beverly Fund) to raise awareness about the bleak statistics surrounding lung cancer. My goals were to 1) educate people that you don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer and 2) to increase the 5 year survival rate from the dismal 15% it had been for almost 40 years. I became a passionate lung cancer advocate. In 2007 I won an AT&T Community Spotlight Hero award for my advocacy work in lung cancer. In 2008 I won a local Bay Area Jefferson Award for my Community service in lung cancer. Later in 2008 I won the grand prize in a Stand Up To Cancer contest, which was to sit in the celebrity phone bank and take pledges during the first national telethon. I was the only lung cancer advocate on the stage who ran her own nonprofit for lung cancer. In 2009 I was nominated and honored with a 2009 Outstanding Young Alumnus award from my Alma mater, again for my community service and philanthropy work in lung cancer. Now in 2010, I get to go to Oprah because of a show she had done years ago that had changed my life and had to do with lung cancer.

I have been watching Oprah since she first aired the Oprah Winfrey Show back in 1986. I had always wanted to be on the show or just sit in the audience, but getting tickets was extremely hard since tickets were awarded by lottery. Since my mom’s diagnosis, and for the past 5 years, I had also written Oprah dozens of times asking her to do a show on lung cancer.

I felt that if Oprah could elevate the cause, it would heighten the awareness and bring in the research funding that it so desperately needed. (Since it is the #1 cancer killer in the world, and the least funded cancer research). Letter after letter went unanswered. In 2009 I had told Oprah’s Angel Network about how I was inspired to start a nonprofit. Yet, I still felt I had something else that I needed to tell Oprah.

This past summer, Oprah posed a question to her Ultimate Fans on her website asking them what episode changed their life. That was so easy for me to answer so I wrote in and told her my story.  The story involved my mother and her diagnosis with lung cancer. My mother passed away 5 weeks before I got married and as any cancer caregiver would know, the 15 month ordeal was one that forever changed my life. But I have the Oprah Winfrey Show to be grateful for because I was able to capture a moment with my mother that will last me a lifetime. I wanted to let Oprah know what that was and say ‘thanks’ – even if it was only going to be read by a staff member.

At the time my mother was diagnosed I knew it was terminal. Every year for my birthday, no matter where I was in the world, my mother would call and sing Happy Birthday to me. She always seemed to get the time zone wrong too, but I always quickly forgave her as soon as I heard her voice. However, soon that singing voice would disappear on my birthday and that made me sad. I felt hopeless, but then I remembered a show that Oprah had on several years back on Build-A-Bear. The Oprah show’s Build-A-Bear episode demonstrated how you could not only stuff your own bear, but you could also record your voice in a personal message to the gift recipient. The light bulb went off and I requested that from my mother for my 35th birthday.

On my birthday I had come into the kitchen and there was an envelope, but no gift. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed. As I read the card and the amount of the check enclosed, my mom had slipped out of the room. But all I could think of was that this check couldn’t buy me what I wanted, which was something that would be irreplaceable.  I looked up after reading the card trying to muster a smile at her and appearing grateful. To my surprise, there she was standing there with a Build-A-Bear box in her arms. My face lit up with joy. I snagged it from her hands as she fondly called me a ‘pain in the ass’. She had decorated the bear herself. It had a Lance Armstrong bracelet on her wrist and a little birthday hat and horn. When I pressed her paw, I heard my mom’s voice singing. My mom passed away 4 months later, just 5 weeks before my wedding, but she sings me Happy Birthday every year still. And I would never have had that idea if I hadn’t seen it on the Oprah show.

If you are an Oprah fan then you know that she is all about rewarding her Ultimate Fans during her last season of the Oprah Winfrey Show. I got a call from a field rep who interviewed me for an hour about my essay, lung cancer, the Beverly Fund, the work I’ve done for the Lung Cancer Action Network (LungCAN), Brad Pitt and what was on my bucket list. Before I hung up with the field rep, I asked her what were the next steps. She said that I could either get a call in a few days or in six months or not get a call at all. It was out of her hands now. I tried not to let the excitement of seeing Oprah live get to me, albeit I was over the moon. Six weeks later… I got another call. I had been selected to be in the audience and I could bring only one guest. The woman was insistent that it be an Ultimate Fan. Needless to say, I  felt like jumping right out of my skin.

I asked when the show would air and what the topic was on, but I wasn’t told anything. Everything was “still being defined” – I knew that pursuing an answer was futile. Besides, at this point, I was just thrilled to go, so it could have been on aliens for all I cared. But much to my delight, it wasn’t on aliens. When I arrived I realized that I was surrounded by phenomenal human beings, philanthropists and real life heroes making a difference and impact in the world. As it turned out, the audience was filled with people who “live to give back” and Oprah was giving back to them for her last ever Ultimate Favorite Things episode! I was and still am, overwhelmed by it all.

In closing, I know I am extremely blessed to be surrounded by family and friends who are so incredibly supportive and loving. However, if it’s one thing I learned from them and from Oprah, is that it doesn’t matter how many “things” you have, you are not truly rich until you are rich in your heart by being surrounded by people who you love and who love you back.  I don’t want to sound ungrateful when I say this, but it goes without saying that I would give back every fortunate blessed thing that has happened to me in the past 5 years if I could have my Mom back.

p.s. I still want Oprah to do a show on lung cancer.

Here’s  Oprah’s take (I am in this trailer wearing a red sweater looking ridiculous)

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  1. #1 by cynthia Siegfried on November 23, 2010 - 12:32 am

    Great story. I’m with you I want Oprah to do a show on LC before the show goes off the air. I, too, have contacted her over the past several years about doing a show on the topic–no luck. My husband has been battling LC for 8 yrs–the last metastasis to the bone in 2009. He is now in the 1% group of survivors with his history. Let me know if we can work together somehow.

    • #2 by Tracy Sestili on January 4, 2011 - 3:26 am

      Maybe we could do a proposal for the OWN network? God bless your husband – he is a warrior and must have a great attitude and a great support network at home. Thanks for your support and advocacy work. xoxo

  2. #3 by lori hope on December 4, 2010 - 7:19 pm

    Beautiful story, Tracy. And having just lost my dad, I think know what you mean about trading it all in to have your mom back. Having had cancer and helping others because of it has also been gratifying, but who wouldn’t exchange the unthinkable, no matter how much the consequences benefited others?
    Keep up the fabulous work, Tracy!

  1. Social Media Tip Tuesday November 23, 2010 «

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