Clinton Township resident advocates for lung cancer funding, research

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published April 10, 2021

 Terita McKenzie, left, stands with her mother, Theresa Ezekiel-Haley, at her wedding. Ezekiel-Haley died from lung cancer in 2019. McKenzie now advocates for lung cancer awareness and research funding.

Terita McKenzie, left, stands with her mother, Theresa Ezekiel-Haley, at her wedding. Ezekiel-Haley died from lung cancer in 2019. McKenzie now advocates for lung cancer awareness and research funding.

Photo provided by Terita McKenzie

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CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Terita McKenzie said her mother deserved a fighting chance. Now, she’s giving her one.

Theresa Ezekiel-Haley died June 17, 2019, at the age of 57 after a bout with lung cancer.

Common back pain thought to be a strain from playing with her grandson quickly morphed into stage IV of the cancer — the deadliest kind in the United States for both men and women. She was diagnosed in February 2018.

“Our parents were literally all (my sister and I) had,” said McKenzie, 38, of Clinton Township. “(My mother and I) were very close. We lived about seven minutes from each other and saw each other every day. It was a close bond.”

Following her mother’s death, McKenzie searched for an outlet to honor her mother — who died from the same disease that also took her grandmother’s life. McKenzie was just 8 years old then.

She found information about the American Lung Association and became involved in its LUNG FORCE initiative, which aims to unite women nationwide and fight back against lung cancer.

According to the ALA, every five minutes in the United States, a woman discovers she has lung cancer.

“My mother, for as long as I could remember, was a smoker,” said McKenzie, who along with her sister does not smoke. “Up until her diagnosis in 2018, she was a smoker.”

She admitted that she had several conversations with her mother over the years about smoking and nicotine, from the perspective of second-hand smoke and a general healthy lifestyle.

“I didn’t realize how addictive it was until I had close friends who would speak up and say, ‘It’s not as easy as you think to quit,’” she said. “She had done it for so long.”

When a spot was found on Ezekiel-Haley’s lungs, she never picked up a cigarette again.

This year, on March 17 as part of the ALA’s annual Advocacy Day event, McKenzie — along with Howell resident and lung cancer survivor Jim Pantelas — represented the Michigan delegation to speak to lawmakers.

The pair advocated for $46.1 billion through the National Institutes of Health, $10 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to encourage adequate and affordable healthcare nationwide.

“There were different hurdles that we faced because of the types of insurance. … It’s unfortunate that it’s not getting the funding and research it deserves,” she said. “I am optimistic and have hope that we get to a point where everyone has access to affordable healthcare.”

Normally, state advocates travel to Washington, D.C., to share their stories in front of Congress. But due to COVID-19, McKenzie and Pantelas instead shared their experiences virtually to Michigan lawmakers. McKenzie was a little disappointed but was glad to share her mother’s memory.

“Any opportunity I have to tell my mother’s story, I truly enjoy it,” she said. “She was a fighter, how she impacted our family.”

She hopes lung cancer and the myriad deaths it causes gets more attention moving forward, in the same vein breast cancer and other diseases do. The stigma is apparent, but McKenzie wonders if that’s really relevant at all.

“Although my mom was a smoker, she didn’t deserve to lose her life to lung cancer,” McKenzie said. “Anyone with lungs can get it. You can be the healthiest of the healthy. It does not discriminate.

“Seventy-five percent of the people I share my story with ask if she was a smoker, but does that make a difference? As long as you have lungs, you’re at risk for lung cancer.”

Learn more about LUNG FORCE and the stories of individuals impacted by the disease at www.lung.org/lung-force.

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