Path 2

Invisible Home Danger Leads to Medical, Advocacy Journey – Could You Be at Risk?

Editor’s Note: When GASP launched its Amplify Project last year, our goal was simple: To help amplify the voices of people in our community that need to be heard – our young people, our neighbors in frontline communities, and people who have first-hand experience grappling with the very real health impacts associated with poor air quality.

While GASP’s focus has long been on the quality of outdoor ambient air, with people spending a whole lot more time at home, the quality of our indoor air has never been more important.

Today, we’re honored to help amplify our friend Jackie Nixon’s story. We met Jackie recently through her work with Citizens for Radioactive Radon Reduction and were inspired by her. We won’t give away any more of the details – we want you to hear about Jackie’s journey from Jackie herself. Without further ado…

In July 2015, I went to the doctor because I had shingles. I got the medicine for the shingles and the doctor then asked me if I had any other complaints that may need to be checked out as part of my Medicare health maintenance. 

I hadn’t been to a doctor in 18 months – I was extremely healthy: never had the flu, never broke anything, blood pressure, and blood sugar and cholesterol were excellent. 

So, in answer to her question I said, “No. I feel great. Except, well…I sing and I noticed that my voice sometimes sounds a little bit edgy and I can roll notes, but it seems now I have to take a quick, short breath to end the run.” 

I said it was probably because I had been sitting and working on the computer too much in the past year and I probably just need to exercise my diaphragm more – that’s all. Singing and music is my passion. I got my voice when I was eight years old. I’ve been in every church choir. I just love it!

My doctor asked me as she listened to my chest if I was coughing or had any chest pains, to which I said, “Nothing.”

At that point, we were both going to blow it off thinking it was nothing. My doctor had her hand on the door ready to leave, but then said, “Well, since you get this free maintenance, let’s just order a chest X-ray.”

A series of events led up to my mission to advocate for radon gas testing and mitigation:

The Diagnosis

Two days later, I got a call saying they found a tumor approximately 1-inch in diameter in my lung. I had a biopsy that proved to be lung cancer – adenocarcinoma.

I was blown away! 

Of course, I went through all of the mental pain everyone else does and after talking with my doctor again, she said, “Do you realize that we both almost walked out of that door? And if you hadn’t gotten shingles, we probably never would have found this for another year or so?”

After the biopsy, CT scan, PET scan, breathing, heart, and blood tests, I had my consultation with the thoracic surgeon. I remember he came in and the very first words were, “So, how do you think you got this?” My answer was a simple, “I don’t know!”      All of my tests came back exceptional – he had no clue!  

The Surgery

A month later, on Sept. 9, 2015, I had a lobectomy. They removed the upper left lobe of my lung. I lost one-fifth of my lung capacity. The surgery went smoothly and that same day I tried to sing and was still able to. 

I was released from the hospital in three days, at which point I was 100 percent cancer-free. No chemo, radiation, or medication – the doctor said just walk every day. I went back to church and the choir after two months. 

Did You Ever Hear About Radon?

After I returned to my normal duties seven months later, I was conversing with a board member who was also a home inspector, and mentioned that everyone was puzzled about how I got lung cancer. 

My colleague asked, “Did you ever hear of radon?”  

He mentioned that radon was the second-leading cause of lung cancer and the number-one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. I didn’t know anything about radon, so I did my homework and read up about it. 

I was shocked at the study results regarding radon emissions and the number of deaths due to exposure. I had my building tested which revealed higher-than-normal radon levels. I lived in this building for 38 years. We live in a homeowner’s association and no one had ever tested our building for radon! Homes in the area that I live in are built on top of old coal mines in Pennsylvania.

For those who don’t know: Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally when uranium in the ground breaks down, entering homes through cracks in the foundation and other openings in the home. You can’t see it and you can’t smell it.

The concentration of radon in the air is measured in units of picocuries per liter (pCi/L).

So, I asked two of my neighbors if I could place a test in their apartments, which were located in the lowest level of the building. The right side tested at 18 pCiL and the left side at 9 pCiL. For reference, 18 pCiL is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes every day.

EPA recommends homes be fixed if the radon level is 4 pCi/L (picocurries per liter) or more. Because there is no known safe level of exposure to radon, EPA also recommends that Americans consider fixing their home for radon levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L.

The average indoor radon concentration for America’s homes is about 1.3 pCi/L.

Fixed

I talked with the homeowner’s association and it said it was up to each homeowner to test on their own! I said, “How can they test if no one knows about it?”

I turned the information over to the condo association and they tested again. They used test kits from Home Depot and the left side came out to 21 pCiL and the right side 13 pCiL. They then called in a certified mitigation company to fix the problem.  We now have five mitigation systems in our building. 

However, there are about 12 condo buildings in my complex and my building is the only one equipped with a mitigation system.

Unfortunately, there are no laws in Pennsylvania that say you must do a radon test as a seller, buyer or homeowner. Also, there are no laws that require schools to test.  

I found out that many people don’t know about radon and how it can affect them. As a result of my reading and talking with various people and organizations that have been so helpful in providing information, I became a Pennsylvania Radon Awareness Advocate for Citizens for Radioactive Radon Reduction (CR3)

More education and legislation need to happen at the local level and the information must get into the hands of more people. 

The moment that inspired all of this was a home inspector who asked me, “Did you ever hear about radon?” Since then, I questioned why I am surviving so well. How was I able to walk away with no chemo, radiation, or medication?  

I came to realize that the key was getting checked out early. The key was the early detection of cancer-causing agents like radon. I also came to realize that the function of early detection could be greater than chemotherapy, radiation, and medication!   

Just by asking a simple question, a series of events spiraled into actions. Giving someone a brochure or taking the time to talk with them about the issue could save a life. Just when I thought I was about to lose mine, I found PURPOSE. Maybe I can help someone through early detection. For me, this is my way of paying it forward. I’m Stage 1 and five years cancer-free!  

For more information on GASP’s Amplify Project, check out our blog. To make a submission, email our communications manager at amanda@gasp-pgh.org.

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  1. JACKIE nIXON says:

    Be sure to read the 2021 January issue of CR3 News Magazine dedicated to National Radon Action Month: https://joom.ag/ytHC

    1. Amanda Gillooly says:

      Thank you for the link, Jackie! And for allowing us to share your story!!

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