There’s no logical reason why Marsha Hamilton should have lung cancer, but she does.
“No family history. I’ve never smoked in my life. I feel like I’ve been very healthy,” she said last week.
The former All-American hurdler and gymnast at the University of Montana was the first woman to receive the Grizzly Cup in 1978 and the first to be inducted into the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.
Hamilton co-founded Bitterroot Gymnastics in 1975 with husband Terry when she was still in college, and maintains close ties with that and the masters track and field scenes, among others, in Missoula.
It was a shock early last June when Hamilton was diagnosed with Stage 4 (advanced) cancer. On Monday, between chemo and immunotherapy treatments, she'll leave for Washington, D.C., where she’ll meet up with grown sons Keane and Lane and take her battle to a different level.
The longtime kindergarten, physical education teacher and coach at Hellgate Elementary is Montana’s 2019 Lung Force Hero. Wednesday is the American Lung Association’s fourth annual Lung Force Advocacy Day, and Hamilton will be on Capitol Hill with Heroes from all 50 states.
She hopes to meet with Montana senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, and present each with what Ronni Flannery calls “some very specific policy asks.”
Flannery, a Missoula lawyer whose work for the American Lung Association is geared to air quality and climate change, will be there as well. She said the numbers that swirl around lung cancer are sobering. It’s the No. 1 cancer killer in the United States for women and men, causing the deaths of 16 Americans every hour. In the last 40 years the rate of new lung cancer cases has fallen 35 percent among men but increased 87 percent among women.
Hamilton's plight is "crazy and unfair, but it's also not out of the realm of what we're seeing," Flannery said.
The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration has approved 17 new therapies to treat lung cancer since 2016, among them promising new targeted immune therapies.
One of the two “asks” that Hamilton and the other Lung Force Heroes will be making is congressional support for $41.6 billion for the National Institutes of Health, which is developing those treatments. NIH sponsored a lung cancer screening trial that concluded mortality rates for lung cancer could be reduced 15 percent to 20 percent if people at high risk receive a low-cost CT scan.
The other ask is co-sponsorship of legislation that ensures lung cancer patients and others with pre-existing conditions can obtain quality and affordable health care.
Hamilton, who has never been to the nation's capital, said the Heroes will first gather Tuesday morning.
“It’ll be a time for people to share stories, learn from each other, and there’ll be a panel of medical experts for a question-and-answer thing,” she said.
They'll spend the afternoon in training before they go to the Hill on Wednesday.
Tuesday night will be a time for fun. While Terry, also a teacher at Hellgate Elementary, holds down the fort at home, son Lane is treating the Missoula contingent to a Washington Wizards-Boston Celtics NBA basketball game. A former state champion hurdler and soccer standout at Big Sky High, Lane works in the marketing department for the Houston Rockets.
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His older brother Keane, a former professional soccer player in Ireland, is an assistant soccer coach at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College, a team he helped to the NCAA Division II national title 10 years ago.
A year ago Marsha Hamilton had no notion of the disease invading her body. She said she had breathing difficulties in her nightly mountain bike rides and a mild but persistent cough that had been hanging on for months. It seemed like half her kindergarten class at Hellgate had the same cough, so she wasn't alarmed.
But in May, late in her 24th year of teaching, Hamilton noticed the lymph nodes in her neck were swollen. Her first doctor gave her antibiotics, which after two weeks hadn't helped. She went to a second doctor, who quickly sent her for a chest X-ray.
It showed her left lung was completely full of fluid and there was a mass "that could not be ruled out," Hamilton wrote in a Lung Force Heroes letter in January. A CT scan revealed cancer that had "metastasized through my spine and other places in my body."
Due to the compromised immune system that chemotherapy leaves her with, Hamilton has had to retire from the teaching job she loved.
"But I've had very few side effects," she said. "I didn't lose my hair, and I'm able to function pretty well."
The first rounds of chemo took a lot out of her, but Hamilton is encircled by support from her family and friends. Friends Renee King, Lindsey Olson and Katie Fortune launched a GoFundMe drive online, Standing Strong With Ms. Hamy, that has raised more than $31,000 toward medical expenses.
Hamilton said she lifts regularly at the gym and hikes the mountains with her dogs around the family home up Lolo Creek.
The Grizzly Hall of Famer grew up in Great Falls and made her first headlines on this side of the mountains running track for Neil Eliason at Flathead Valley Community College before transferring to UM in 1975.
She and Terry opened Bitterroot Gymnastics later that year, and in the spring of '76 Hamilton placed eighth for the Grizzlies in the 100-meter hurdles at the national Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) meet, before the NCAA embraced women's sport.
In 1977 she was a Junior Olympics finalist in gymnastics, and the following year she gained her second All-American laurel by placing ninth at the AIAW national gymnastics meet and was awarded the Grizzly Cup.
"I don't know what's in the future for me," Hamilton said last week. "Who knows? I was fairly fit and healthy to start with. I'm sure that has had something to do with it. I'm trying to control my diet, eating healthy and organic foods that are good for me. No sugar. Cancer cells thrive on sugar."
Flannery approached Hamilton last fall about becoming Montana's Lung Force Hero after learning of her plight from a mutual friend, Kristen Nicholarsen.
"She was enthustiastic, just as you'd imagine from Marsha, and ready to roll up her sleeves," Flannery said.
"My first reaction was I haven't been active politically," Hamilton said. "I'm just not that way, and also it was really a private thing for me. I was trying to figure out what my life was going to look like, so I was a little bit hesitant but not entirely.
"They made it seem so easy, not like I have to be out there in the public eye and pushing too much, not knocking door to door and asking for money, just really a face and a story. So I said I'll do what I can do."