Long Walk Back | Page 2 of 3

Long Walk Back

After surviving two bouts of cancer as a teen, Bethesda's Jerry Sorkin thought he was in the clear. Then came the diagnosis that changed his life.

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Sorkin and other lung cancer  patients and survivors gathered to kick off last year's Breathe Deep DC walk on the National Mall. Photo credit: LUNGevitySorkin and LUNGevity President Andrea Stern Ferris of Potomac hope for as many as 3,000 participants this year. They want the fight against lung cancer to achieve the same high profile as breast cancer’s Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. “That’s the gold standard,” Sorkin says.

Ferris, a veteran businesswoman and former part-owner of an Arlington software company, came to LUNGevity after her family’s nonprofit, Protect Your Lungs, merged with the organization in 2010. Ferris, 43, founded Protect Your Lungs to help fund cancer research in honor of her mother, who died of lung cancer in 2008.

Like Sorkin, Ferris was bothered by the lack of attention paid to the disease. It strikes one in 14 Americans, according to LUNGevity. About 55 percent of those diagnosed never smoked or had quit smoking.

“It’s a jumbo jet every day of the year in the U.S. alone,” Ferris says. “That’s a lot of people.”  

For Sorkin, the annual walk provides both solace and hope—exactly what he needed after his diagnosis. “To me, that was as valuable as a half-million dollars raised [for] research,” he says.

Sorkin always wondered whether the blasts of radiation he received as a teenager to treat the Hodgkin’s might trigger a secondary malignancy. He’d never know for sure. But in any case, he didn’t think lung cancer. And he didn’t think anything would happen for a while.

When he received the diagnosis, Sorkin stopped working and went on long-term disability leave. Knowing that he could die within a year, he and his family decided to travel—to Disney World and Israel, among other places—between chemo treatments. He attended several Bruce Springsteen concerts, and a friend arranged for him to meet The Boss.

“We said, ‘Let’s go,’ and we did,” he says. “We did tons of things.”

Sorkin had adopted a similar attitude after his first cancer diagnosis at 16, when he was a high school junior in East Brunswick, N.J. With the invincibility of youth, he didn’t worry about surviving. “I was pretty confident I’d be able to beat it,” Sorkin says. “I didn’t feel that sick.”

Instead, he focused on what mattered to him—working on the high school newspaper and starting his own community news show on the local cable TV station—and let everything else slide. He took a cue from his mother, who had multiple sclerosis but never let it hold her back.

“Our familial response is to become hyper-involved and hyperactive,” Sorkin says. “As a result, I was a kid more involved in any activities than anyone else. My grades were lousy, but I did everything.”

Sorkin and Lisa met at age 13 during a school math contest. They were friends during high school, but didn’t date until both were out of college and living in Washington, D.C. Lisa teases Sorkin that the first cancer diagnosis led him to squander his mathematical talents.

“I stopped doing math, and very nearly failed trig and calculus,” he admits.

Three months of radiation put the disease into remission, and Sorkin went on with his life. In 1983, he headed to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., to major in economics and politics, and Lisa went to the University of Michigan. In January of Sorkin’s sophomore year, a routine checkup revealed that the Hodgkin’s lymphoma had returned. Doctors recommended major surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes from his chest.  

The news that the cancer was back hit hard. At 19, Sorkin now thought he was going to die. “It was the one time that I couldn’t pull myself out of the doldrums,” he says.

Sorkin’s mother opposed the surgery, though, and found a doctor who recommended chemotherapy for a year. While at Yale that spring and the following fall, Sorkin spent weekends in the hospital getting infusions. “This was in the days when chemo really sucked,” he says.

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