Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen was looking for a way to join the fight against lung cancer.
The traditional fundraiser - the 5k run - was out. Sachs-Kohen hates running.
Instead, the assistant rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and several dozen fellow yoga enthusiasts will be taking to the mats today for what they're calling the Free to Breathe Yogathon. On the first day of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, they plan to earn pledges by performing the sun salutation, a sequence of body positions in hatha yoga. One hundred and eight sun salutations, in fact, which might be more strenuous than running 3.1 miles.
Sachs-Kohen hadn't given much thought to lung cancer before her mother was diagnosed with the disease last year. Janet Kohen died 10 weeks later. She was 64.
It was during her family's ordeal that Sachs-Kohen learned that lung cancer is the nation's leading cancer killer, causing more deaths each year than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.
She also learned that lung cancer receives less than one-twentieth of the research funding per death than those better publicized cancers get.
The National Lung Cancer Partnership blames the discrepancy on the stigma around smoking, the cause of 87 percent of lung cancer cases, and the sense that those who have developed the disease have brought it on themselves.
"Even among people who have never smoked and get this disease, if they share with somebody, 'Hey, you know, I have lung cancer,' the first question is, 'Well, did you smoke?' " says Regina Vidaver, executive director of the Madison, Wis.-based partnership. "It's such a judging question, and it's so difficult for people to bear when they're bearing a diagnosis of lung cancer."
Such judgments affect the amount of funding available for research, Vidaver says.
"It's the second-leading cause of death. It's second only to heart disease," she says. "And yet if you look at the amount of money the government spends researching the disease, it's pitiful.
"We have invested incredibly in breast cancer. We have invested incredibly in heart disease. And those investments have paid off. The survival rates are far, far higher. The mortality rates are far, far lower for those diseases because of the investments in research that we have made. We're just saying we need the same commitment to lung cancer, given the incredible toll it takes on American lives."
Events such as the Yogathon, staged by local volunteers around the country and throughout the year, but particularly during November, raise half the funds that the partnership spends each year on awareness and research, Vidaver says.
Laura Rashkin, a friend of Sachs-Kohen who has helped organize and plans to participate in the Yogathon, sees both practicality and symbolism in the choice of activity.
"There is the symbolic connection to breathing - the lungs - which is important in yoga," says the Baltimore woman, an oncology nurse at Sinai Hospital. "It's also a good type of event for people who have been affected by the disease. Anybody can do yoga."
Organizers have signed up more than 50 participants and pledges of more than $12,000 for the event today at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Sachs-Kohen describes her mother's death as both surprising and devastating. The Yogathon is one way she is trying to deal with it.
"It doesn't take the pain away," she says. "But it helps me to do something with it."
Free to Breathe Yogathon
The event is open to the public and is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Walk-ins are welcome. Registration fee is $35. For more information, go to freetobreathe.org.