When Columbia resident Michael Osborne was diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer in April of 2008, one prevailing thought kept running through his mind.
"I was devastated because, to me, lung cancer meant you were dead," Osborne said. "That's what I knew growing up, so that's what I thought I was facing."
More than five years later, Osborne's living proof that lung cancer is not a death sentence, and he's spreading the word.
Osborne is behind Breathe Deep Columbia, a 5K walk and lung awareness fair scheduled for Saturday, April 20 at the downtown Columbia lakefront.
The purpose of the event, which is in its first year, is to raise money for lung cancer while simultaneously dispelling misconceptions surrounding the disease.
The event, which begins at 9 a.m. and runs through 2 p.m., is sponsored by LUNGevity Foundation, the Columbia Association, Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Associates and Maryland Oncology Hematology.
"One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the disease is if you are not a smoker, or a former smoker, you are not at risk for lung cancer," said Diana Aldecoa, LUNGevity's director of grass roots fundraisers.
"It is a disease for anybody," said Aldecoa, whose mother died of lung cancer.
According to Aldecoa, 55 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers or former smokers.
"You don't hear about it because of the stigma it is a smokers' disease, but lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death," Aldecoa said. "It kills twice as many women as breast cancer and three times as many men as prostate cancer."
Aldecoa said lung cancer affects 1 in 14 Americans, and claims more than 160,000 lives per year.
"The awareness for this disease needs to come to the forefront," said the 55-year-old Osborne, who quit smoking 23 years ago.
"Cigarettes is the stigma attached to lung cancer; the idea that you did it to yourself," Osborne said. "When you tell someone you have lung cancer, the first thing they say is, 'Do you smoke?' That's not necessarily the case, and we want that awareness to come out of this."
Osborne said the unawareness and misconceptions about the disease sometimes prevent survivors from participating in fundraisers and awareness events like Breathe Deep, which also holds 5K events in Baltimore and Washington.
"For me, I spent a long time denying it, and a long time trying to forget it," said Osborne. "But we want people to come out and support."
Osborne, who said he was told he was cured in March of 2012, recalled the first day he saw his then 10-year-old son after he shaved his hair and beard during chemotherapy.
"I'm home when my son gets back from school. When he walked in the door he immediately ran," Osborne said. "He didn't know who I was."
In the past, that story may have been difficult for Osborne to tell. Now, thanks to an increased comfort level discussing lung cancer, he recalls it with a chuckle.
Aldecoa said a big part of LUNGevity's efforts is helping survivors accept lung cancer.
"It doesn't matter how you get it," she said. "A lot of lung cancer patients feel they are alone. We try to get rid of the guilt, for them to have a voice and be heard."