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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Lung cancer.

When Jerry Sorkin heard the diagnosis in August 2007, the 42-year-old Bethesda resident was stunned.

He’d been in good health since beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice as a teenager. After years without a relapse, he didn’t think much about it anymore. He and his wife, Lisa, were too busy raising 7-year-old Emma and 5-year-old Claire. And Sorkin was enjoying his job as an executive director at the Corporate Executive Board in Arlington, Va., where he helped companies grow.

But that June, he’d noticed some small blood specks when he coughed. His doctor treated him for a sinus infection, then suggested a CAT scan, given his history.

The scan showed nodules that lit up across his chest like “1,000 flowers blooming,” Sorkin says.

Additional testing revealed Stage IV lung cancer, which had a first-year survival rate of 2 percent or less. The same disease had killed his mother in 1992. Sorkin, a nonsmoker, was told that he had maybe a year to live.

“I was, fair to say, incoherent,” he says. “I’m in the middle of the night thinking I’m not going to be around. Not only am I not going to make it to Emma’s wedding, I’m not going to make it to her bat mitzvah. That is devastating.”

Four years later, Sorkin, now 46, is too busy to lie awake fearing for his future. Regular chemotherapy treatments have stabilized the cancer. He’s in good physical shape, although the treatments leave him feeling ill for a few days afterward, and he gets winded climbing a couple flights of stairs.

Since the diagnosis, he has spent lots of time with his family and has dedicated himself to raising awareness about lung cancer, the top cancer killer in the United States. About 150,000 Americans die annually from the disease.

That’s why he’ll be on the National Mall on Nov. 6, to launch Breathe Deep DC 2011, a 5K walk to raise money for lung cancer research. The event is sponsored by LUNGevity Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that’s working to improve lung cancer survival rates.

Sorkin participated in a fundraising walk in Washington after his diagnosis and was buoyed by the support of lung cancer survivors. A year later, he learned that the event no longer existed. He was “dumbfounded and distraught” that there was nothing to participate in to celebrate his survival, he says. “I did not want to start my own thing. I just wanted to walk in somebody else’s walk. I did not set out to become an activist,” Sorkin says.

He got involved with LUNGevity in 2009 after researching organizations devoted to fighting lung cancer. He took charge of organizing the fundraising walk in 2009 because he believed the cause needed a national stage. Lisa came up with the name, Breathe Deep, which has been adopted by LUNGevity walks around the country. “I absolutely did not want it to be Jerry’s walk,” he says.

That first year, 1,200 people participated and the event raised $250,000. “It was one of the best days of my life,” recalls Sorkin, who now serves as vice chair of LUNGevity’s board of directors.

Hundreds of friends and relatives gathered at the Washington Monument and walked a route around the Mall. “It was like having 1,000 friends on Facebook and being in the same place all at one time. It was just an absolutely amazing day.”

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