Personal connection fuels advocacy for lung cancer

Tonya Sears is pictured during the 6th Annual Lung Cancer Advocacy Summit in Dallas, Texas. The summit featured three days of interactive training sessions. — SUBMITTED BY TONYA SEARS

After losing four family members to lung cancer, Tonya Sears is on mission to raise awareness about the disease.

Sears was a child when her grandfather died of lung cancer. In more recent years, the disease claimed the lives of her aunt, mother and sister.

Sears’ sister, Donna Marie Sears was diagnosed in February 2006. Donna had been experiencing upper respiratory infections and acid reflux continuously in the weeks and months leading up to the diagnosis. By the time that Donna’s lung cancer was discovered, it had developed into an advanced stage, Stage IV. She died six months after her diagnosis in August 2006.

At the time her sister was diagnosed, Sears said she knew little about the disease.

“I really had no clue about anything. I did as much research as I could online and learned as much as I could about chemo and the different types of lung cancer,” Sears said.

Sears’ aunt, Melody Beverly, was diagnosed one year later in August 2007. While her lung cancer was caught at Stage IV, Beverly lived for five years, undergoing radiation and chemotherapy and keeping a positive outlook through it all.

Sears said she learned a lot through her aunt’s experience. She would accompany her aunt to chemotherapy treatments and various health seminars.

“She taught me so much. She was really outspoken about it,” said Sears, who is 46.

Four weeks before she died, Sears’ aunt made a video that outlined her desire for her family to become involved in educating others about lung cancer.

for the family that outlined her desire to educate people about lung cancer.

“Lung cancer has such a stigma that people don’t talk about it. People don’t ask questions and then a lot of people just accept whatever options that they are given,” Sears said.

Sears’ mother, Dinah DuPriest was diagnosed with the disease in Oct. 1, 2007. The cancer had spread to the kidney and the brain. DuPriest succumbed to lung cancer on Nov. 15, six weeks after she was diagnosed.

The experience of losing her family members led Sears to become an advocate around lung cancer issues. She’s made it her mission to educate others about lung cancer, raise awareness and funds for research.

In September, Sears attended the 6th Annual Lung Cancer Advocacy Summit in Dallas, Texas where she participated in three days of interactive training sessions. Participants learned about fundraising initiatives, educating communities about lung cancer, reducing the stigma of the disease and contributing to the scientific research process.

During the month of November, Sears will set up a table at the Free Library of Philadelphia Widener Branch and disseminate brochures about the signs and symptoms of lung cancer.

Many people with lung cancer may not display symptoms until the disease is in its later stages. Some of the symptoms include: A chronic cough or “smoker’s cough,” hoarseness, constant chest pain, shortness of breath or wheezing, frequent lung infections and coughing up blood.

Sears’ focus on bringing awareness to lung cancer comes at a time when more than 228,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease every year, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer claims more lives each year than the annual number of deaths by breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. Even though it claims the lives or more than 160,000 Americans annually, lung cancer research receives less funding than other cancers.

Research shows that African Americans suffer from lung cancer more than any other group in the United States. The American Lung Association 2010 report “Too Many Cases, Too Many Deaths: Lung Cancer in African Americans” found that African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed later, when the cancer is more advanced. The report indicates that African Americans are more likely to wait longer after diagnosis to receive treatment, more likely to refuse treatment and more likely to die in the hospital after surgery. The report lists various factors that contribute to these health disparities including socioeconomic status, environmental exposure to toxins, access to health care, discrimination and social stress.

This marks the third year Sears will participate in the Pennsylvania Lung Cancer Partnership’s Free to Breathe event where she will walk with family and friends in “Team DMD Breathers” named in honor of Donna, Melody and Dinah. The event will be held Nov. 3 from 7:30 to 11 a.m. starting at Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, 4231 Avenue of the Arts. Proceeds from the run/walk will benefit lung cancer research, education and awareness programs.

“I’m trying to get people to just come out. It’s just a beautiful event. The walk is so peaceful and serene. It’s just a whole peaceful environment,” Sears said of the event.

For information about the run/walk visit or contact (215) 525-0466.


Contact staff writer Ayana Jones at (215) 893-5747 or

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.