Close to 200 people gathered Thursday night, purchasing white wrist bands for a dollar as part of a national movement to raise awareness about lung cancer, a deadly disease that has afflicted a beloved former Lompoc High School counselor and legions of others.
A packed ballroom at the Lompoc Elks Lodge put the spotlight on a disease that came unsuspectingly on Mary Anne Rios.
Well-wishing former students who knew Rios, and LUSD colleagues including District School Superintendent Gregory Kampf, attended the Shine a Light National Lung Cancer Vigil.
This is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and the vigil was one of 100 that took place in more than 30 states.
The message behind the large gathering was to get the word and understanding out about lung cancer, a knowledge that Rios said is lacking in the community.
“It’s about raising awareness so people aren’t afraid to talk about it, because many people think it’s your own fault,” said Rios who hosted the event.
Nearly 80 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked or have stopped smoking, Rios said.
One of those people was Rios, a non-smoker, before she was diagnosed with stage 3B advanced adenocarcinoma, which has now advanced to stage 4. After many visits to the doctor she was finally diagnosed by a doctor who said she probably got lung cancer from exposure to uranium sometime in her past.
“I was a non-smoker and the doctors didn’t know how to read my symptoms,” Rios said about her chronic cough. “They told me I had indigestion or pneumonia.”
Councilwoman Ashley Costa, a Lompoc High School graduate and event emcee, described Rios as a “strong female role model when I needed that guidance” in high school.
“I think that the harsh reality is that this cancer needs just as much support and funding as breast cancer,” Costa said.
The vigil included guest speaker Dr. Mukul Gupta, of Santa Barbara, lung cancer survivor Lisa Raphel, and many others.
Gupta said more funding was needed to provide more effective means to screen patients and to find more possible targets.
He also said doctor and researcher understanding of lung cancer has not kept pace with the technology.
Learning more about how to treat lung cancer is central to keeping Rios alive at this point.
Rios, a mother-of-two — her daughter Paige co-hosted the event with her last year — is now on disability leave from Lompoc High School. She will receive chemotherapy treatment for four weeks followed by a week’s rest, then four more weeks of treatments. The cancer has metastasized in her brain, she said.
“There’s always hope and new advances available and (people) should learn from Mary Anne and never give up,” Gupta said.
At this stage, Rios’ sister Kathi Downey said, the disease has had an affect on her everyday routine, but it
hasn’t reduced the independent streak that her sister has always had.
“She still has to run the show,” Downey said. “She’s the middle one but she always bosses me around. That’s the way it’s always been.”
Lung cancer, or not, that hasn’t changed.