Andy Trahan: A Triumph of the Spirit
article by Maré Brennan | photography by Martin Graham Meyers
Nothing is going to stop Andy Trahan from being the best he can be – day in, day out. Sure he could have rolled over and let life happen to him a long time ago – like the fateful Valentine’s Day in 2013, when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. But when you have a community like Andy’s Team behind you and a mission to help others, God has another path. “I was raised in a spiritual family, but since my diagnosis, I feel like I’ve become more spiritual. I’m not afraid to talk about it, especially with those who are newly diagnosed with cancer.”
A recent phone call to Andy found this incredible man doing the rather mundane task of house painting. Already this particular morning, he’s played a round a tennis with his favorite tennis pro and biggest advocate, his dad, Phil Trahan. “My dad is big on getting the most information about my disease and doing research on new and best treatments. I would dare say that he knows more than general oncologists know about my specific disease, ALK or positive, metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, which is caused by a gene mutation, not smoking. My dad is always doing the hard work of digging and finding out more information about lung cancer.”
From day one, Andy’s dad Phil looked at the diagnosis as a problem to be solved and has made it his mission to learn everything he could about ALK, seeking out the foremost authorities on this rare cancer and advocating for more research. It was Phil who found Andy’s doctor in Denver, Colorado, a specialist in ALK and the leader of Andy’s extended medical team.
Explains the young father of three, “After I got diagnosed, I had a few difficult times in the beginning. But fairly quickly, I changed the way I thought about things, about life. I started thinking more about other people who were experiencing the same thing as me, mentoring them in the process, helping them get through the phases that I had been through and advocating for more lung cancer research and to stop the stigma of our disease.”
“Before I got lung cancer, I used to think you had to smoke to get it,” explains Andy. But as he and so many have learned, you can do all the right things – exercise, eat right, live clean and wholesomely – but sometimes our bodies betray us, for whatever reason – like a gene mutation, for example.
Shortly after Andy’s diagnosis and initially as a way to keep people informed about the Trahan’s cancer journey, a Facebook page was set up called Andy’s Team, uniting family, friends and community around the Trahan family. In the process, the account is both a living record, as well as a tool to teach about the realities of lung cancer, and serves as a way to end the stigma of having lung cancer as a non-smoker. Andy’s Team also acts as an outreach for Trahan, where those who have been recently diagnosed can find Andy and often private message him for more information and advice.
Miracles happen every day and after a few cancer setbacks, Andy was able to get in on the tail end of a gene therapy trial that had been going on for quite a while, and now that treatment, a drug called Alecensa which is manufactured by Genentech, has been approved by the FDA and become part of the treatment protocol used around the country. Explains Andy, “These pills do a good job of suffocating cancer cells without affecting healthy cells.”
Advocacy for more research funding and ending the fallacy that lung cancer only happens to those who smoke has been a logical progression for Andy, his wife Leslie and his parents. Leslie, a teacher and naturally gifted and compelling communicator on the subject of lung cancer, has been a featured speaker at lung cancer symposiums across the country. On a local level, Leslie and Andy were featured speakers at the Cancer Foundation League’s annual Gala, where our community comes together to raise funds for those affected by cancer locally. When they spoke about their personal journey with cancer, the crowd was motivated even more to do their part for local patients and their families.
“We travel a lot,” said Andy, “We just came back from Washington, D.C., where Leslie and I attended a summit geared toward survivors, caregivers and doctors. It specifically dealt with lung cancer that involves gene mutations like mine. This trip we learned more about how clinical trials work.”
Last year, Leslie and Andy made that same trek to D.C. for the Lungevity Hope Summit on Capitol Hill, where Leslie spoke in order to raise awareness of the plight of non-smokers who are dealt the hand of cancer due to a gene abnormality. “In addition, we had the opportunity to speak personally with Representatives and Senators’ staff members, advocating for the need for more federal funding for lung cancer research and treatment.” In addition, thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of Andy, Leslie, his parents and hundreds of other patients and caregivers, there is now a Congressional Lung Cancer Caucus on Capitol Hill. Our own district’s Representative Ralph Abraham was one of the first members to sign on.
Statistics are something the Trahans are well-versed in. Did you know that for every death from breast cancer, approximately $25,000 is added to its research budget? However, for every lung cancer death, only $1400 is added to its research budget. More startling is that fact that lung cancer kills more people each year that the next four cancers combined. “Obviously,” states Andy, “The funding is not keeping up with the need.”
On November 1, 2015, opening day of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Andy and Leslie hit the ground running, taking flight to Indianapolis to address the Shine a Light on Lung Cancer event at Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical, one of the major players in cancer medication research. Leslie gave a presentation there to “shine the light” on lung cancer through awareness, education and advocacy. This battleship in the funding more research is beginning to turn, thanks in large part to the efforts of Andy and many other patients who politely but firmly draw the public’s attention to an inequity that must end. Shine a Light is an awareness initiative of the Lung Cancer Alliance.
“With the initial diagnosis, I was angry at God and felt sorry for myself. It didn’t take long for me to realize I couldn’t just sit here and worry. Worrying does me no good. Then I kicked it into high gear. I am not gonna lose.”
According to Andy, the new research in the ALK field is yielding a whole new type of therapy centered on immunology. In this exciting new wave of cancer fighting, immunology trains the body’s own immune system to fight cancer and recognize it as a foreign object to be destroyed. Says Andy, “New and better ways to attack lung cancer are being developed all the time, and there are ways to make pills work better and longer. This gives me a lot of hope that one day this will be cured.”
Trahan’s active lifestyle has never waned, running and playing tennis competitively are in his DNA. In general, maintaining his healthy lifestyle by staying active and in shape has given him the best chance to beat this disease and win. “I’ve never even considered giving up,” says the 36 year old dad of three, “I have too much to live for.”
In the words of his dad, “Attaboy!”