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April 10, 2013

Breathe Deep and fight to end lung cancer in Birmingham

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

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Breathe Deep and fight to end lung cancer in Birmingham
Holly Barnett, center, poses with her son, Michael Barnett, and daughter, Brie Hesano, in happier times.

BIRMINGHAM — It’s time to grab a few friends, lace up your sneakers and take a deep breath, because the fifth annual Breathe Deep Michigan 5k Walk and Run for Lung Cancer is coming May 4.

The event will once again be held in Birmingham’s Booth Park, at Old Woodward and Harmon Street. Participants will brave the 3.1 mile trek to show their dedication and support of those fighting lung cancer in our community.

The walk is part of a national campaign with LUNGevity, a Chicago-based foundation dedicated to promoting and raising research funds to find a cure for lung cancer. The event was brought to Michigan in 2008 by Katie Avesian after her mother, Penelope Avesian, was diagnosed with the disease. After a four-year battle, Penelope passed away, but that inspired her daughter to continue spreading awareness for lung cancer.

“My mom was alive for the first one, but then in 2009, she had passed,” said Avesian, who said that, while the years following her mother’s death were difficult, it was rewarding to know she was continuing to fight for her.

“I’m so looking forward to this year’s walk, knowing that we’re going to have a powerful impact again on a community of patients, caregivers, families, loved ones, friends and people who need (support) in their struggle with lung cancer, however it’s impacting their lives.”

One of the people likely to be impacted by this year’s walk is Brie Hesano, of Bloomfield Hills. It’s been just about eight months since Hesano’s mother, Holly Barnett, passed away from stage 4 lung cancer. The diagnosis came as a surprise, said Hesano, and each day after has been a struggle.

“She was diagnosed a couple days before Christmas 2011, and it was a total shock and a fluke. She had just happened to go to the doctor because the year was ending and her deductible would’ve started over,” she said, explaining that her mother had complained of arthritis in her arm that wasn’t feeling better with ongoing treatment. “An X-ray of her arm caught a shadow in her lung. That spurred follow-up testing.”

Doctors seemed optimistic over the next few months, as Barnett endured chemotherapy, Hesano said, so Barnett never lost hope she would live to see the following Christmas. She even vowed she would return to work as a Delta Airlines flight attendant, and ordered a uniform several sizes smaller than her former suit to accommodate all the weight she had lost during treatment.

Christmas never came for Barnett, though, as she passed away in August 2012. The loss was made all the more tragic for her daughter, who just days later learned she was going to have a baby — a long-awaited gift she had hoped to share with her mother before she died.

“After she passed, I found out I was pregnant, and I was pregnant when she was still here and I just didn’t know it. When she passed away, I was a month along. That was kind of crazy,” said Hesano.

Hesano fought alongside her mother last year as she battled lung cancer, and the two walked beside each other during last year’s Breathe Deep 5k. The memories from that event are invaluable to Hesano.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it to the walk, since I’m due May 1 and the walk is May 4. But last year, we got a huge team together and my mom participated. It was the last thing she did because, by then, the cancer was in her bones, and a week after the walk, her bones were so weak that she broke a bone in her pelvis and she never walked on her own again after that,” said Hesano. “But she walked the whole 5k. That was pretty awesome. We had people come in from out of town for the walk. We had a pretty big team.”

Barnett was a dedicated supporter of LUNGevity, asking that all bereavement gifts be made to the foundation. Now Hesano hopes to continue to support the cause in her mother’s place.

“We didn’t know anything about lung cancer beforehand; we didn’t know how deadly it is or how sneaky it is,” she said, noting that her mother was a nonsmoker. “I think the education part of it is important.”

The rain-or-shine event May 4 costs $25 for adults, $10 for children 13 and younger, and $15 for seniors, students and lung cancer survivors. All of the proceeds raised will go to benefit lung cancer research. Participants can register individually or as teams, like Barnett’s group of family and friends, aptly titled “Holly’s Hot Tamales,” taken from a nickname Barnett had in college.

Walkers can also order an honor marker, a customized tribute message to a loved one that will be placed along the event course to guide walkers and runners. Orders for honor markers can be made on the event website before April 12.

Though Avesian said fundraising for this year seems to have stalled a bit, she’s confident that the $40,000 goal is still attainable.

“Last year’s event was more inspiring and more emotional and more joyful than I ever imagined it could be. It was really remarkable and it really moved me. So I’m looking forward to having that same impact this year,” said Avesian.

Hesano agreed, adding that there’s no better way to support a loved one with lung cancer than to aid in the fight against the disease.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, everyone flocks to help, but no one knows what to do,” she said. “The walk spreads awareness for those that are going through this ordeal or this journey. For me, it was the way I met Katie (Avesian). I was put in touch with people who have gone through the same thing. She’s proof that life goes on, and it’s hard, but you can remember them.”

To register for the LUNGevity Foundation’s 2013 Breathe Deep Michigan 5k Walk and Run, visit lungevity.org/Michigan. Registration can also be made in person at 9 a.m. the day of the event.

Booth Park is located at Harmon Street and North Old Woodward Avenue in downtown Birmingham.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.