Shantel VanSanten, an ambassador for the American Lung Association uses her celebrity status to raise awareness about a hidden danger that can prove deadly.
Although it’s been almost a decade since VanSanten’s grandmother passed away, she recalls in detail how the beloved family member welcomed everyone into her home.
“She would cook them a meal, share wise words, listen with an open heart, make everyone giggle, and was thoughtful beyond compare,” explained the model and “Shooter” actress. “She started each day with a song and finished every day with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. She is my inspiration and guide in all I do.”
A difficult time
When 79-year-old Doris Dooyema, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2013, VanSanten was understandably devastated.
“Unfortunately, the cancer was in an aggressive stage when we found it,” she said. “To our shock and despair, we only got to witness her fighting for six months before she was taken from us. I remember sleeping in a bed next to her in the hospice and just savoring hearing her breathe. Holding her hand, and knowing time wasn’t in our favor.
“The chance to care for her allowed me to give back in the way she had always given to me. She was the ultimate caretaker for so many. It was the best way to love her until her last breath.”
An unexpected culprit
Approximately eight months after Dooyema’s death, the family discovered the shocking cause of her lung cancer.
“We found radon leaking in the basement through a crack in the foundation,” VanSanten said. “To think, it could have been prevented, if we had known.”
Radon is the breaking down of uranium in soil. It releases a colorless, odorless gas, which is undetectable unless you have a radon test kit. Home purchases often require a radon test, but people don’t always think to test again.
“In sharing my grandmother’s story with others, I’ve found many friends who’ve tested their homes and had to mitigate radon from it,” VanSanten said. “The toxic levels lead to developing lung issues and lung cancer.”
Knowing the facts
Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and is responsible for roughly 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year.
“Certain areas of the U.S. are more prone to radon being found,” VanSanten noted. “While exposure happens over years before forming issues like lung cancer, it’s important to be testing homes, schools and buildings, and educating people on this subject, which can help save lives. Nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the U.S. has high levels, so please get a kit and install it in your home.”
Recognizing the signs
VanSanten says it’s important to know the symptoms of lung cancer and also take advantage of a lung cancer screening eligibility quiz at SavedByTheScan.org.
“I’ve met quite a few wonderful humans who are out there living and thriving, with lung cancer,” she said. “Many of them were previous smokers who caught the diagnosis early, because of the scan offered to smokers. Many don’t know there’s a tool which allows a patient to get a scan, so they can hopefully early detect any lung issues.”
Uniting for a worthy cause
VanSanten credits LUNG FORCE, a nationwide initiative bringing together women, men, and caregivers, for helping get the word out about the realities of lung cancer.
“To see the force we’ve created for change in not only patients’ lives, but toward research has been truly rewarding,” she said. “I’ve met so many more women who are surviving their diagnoses, and the progress we’re making is astounding.”
VanSanten is grateful to the American Lung Association, which has given her the opportunity to raise awareness while also building a legacy for her grandmother.
“Sharing her stories is the one thing that helps keep her fighting spirit alive,” she said. “Her absence has left me with fuel to fight against lung cancer. Each time I educate others, there’s an opportunity to save a life.”