Lysa Buonanno spent 17 years as a bartender but never liked the job much. Four years ago, she stepped out from behind her last dim, smoke-filled bar to pursue a career in radiography, eventually graduating with a master’s degree from Pima Medical Institute last year.
By then, it seemed clear she wouldn’t get a chance to use it. A year earlier, the 42-year-old mother of two had been diagnosed with stage four terminal lung cancer. It was the consequence, she said, of nearly two decades spent breathing secondhand smoke at Sam’s Town, the Venetian and Buffalo Wild Wings.
When first diagnosed, Buonanno didn’t ask how long she was expected to live and said she was grateful doctors didn’t offer to tell her.
Even now, she doesn’t like to dwell on her long-term prospects.
“It’s just day-to-day right now,” Buonanno said. “I don’t like to put an expiration date on things. … They tell you it’s not curable, but right now, I’m on a new drug that seems to be working pretty well.
“I’ve heard of people celebrating 10-, 15-year anniversaries since they’ve been diagnosed, but there’s about a 5 percent survival rate after five years.”
That prognosis has proved harder on her family than on Buonanno and harder on Buonanno than on her grades.
She pulled a 4.0 GPA in her last year, overcoming three surgeries and brutal bouts of “chemo brain” — short-term memory loss commonly associated with her $12,000-per-month chemotherapy medication — to set herself up for a full-time job she’ll no longer be able to take without risking the loss of her disability insurance benefits.
Watching cancer haunt her daughter’s career dreams has been tough on Paula Ashton.
It’s some consolation, Ashton said, to see Buonanno’s exhaustive work on lung cancer awareness, including this month’s appearance at the American Lung Association’s Fight For Air Walk at Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs.
“When she speaks to groups, it moves people, touches them,” Ashton said. “They come up afterward and wish her well.
“It’s hard because as a mom, you just want to fix (the cancer), make it go away. If I could take it away from her, I would.”
Buonanno, a nonsmoker, said she didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about secondhand smoke when she was a bartender.
These days, she thinks about little else, dedicating most of her time to events such as the Oct. 20 Fresh Air Walk, which saw Buonanno return to the spot where she first shared her story with ALA volunteers last year.
Since then, the Henderson resident has become the face of the nonprofit group in Southern Nevada, mixing lobbying appearances before City Council members in Mesquite and Henderson with ALA promotional stops on Channel 8 news.
She still gets nervous about going on television or stepping in front of a microphone but said she finds motivation in the fact that the public still sees lung cancer as a self-inflicted “smoker’s disease.”
Buonanno, a breathing testament to the contrary, plans to spend the rest of her life clearing the air.
“I’m not a public speaker; it’s nerve-wracking,” she said. “But I enjoy it because I like being able to help people. That’s my mission now; it’s my purpose.
“Even though my disease is associated with (first)hand smoke, 20 percent of lung cancer patients never smoked. Part of what I what I want to get out there is that it’s not a smoker’s disease; all you need is lungs.”
For more information on Buonanno or the Fight For Air Walk, contact the American Lung Association at 702-431-6333 or fightforairwalk.org.
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter James DeHaven at 702-477-3839 or firstname.lastname@example.org.