DEL MAR — Unlike nearly everyone who has suffered from pneumonia, Paula Zinnemann feels “blessed” to have been diagnosed with the lung infection.
“It saved my life,” she said.
A little more than five years ago, while living in Rancho Santa Fe, Zinnemann was feeling sick and having trouble breathing, so she visited the emergency room of a nearby hospital.
A chest X-ray revealed she had pneumonia. “That didn’t surprise me,” Zinnemann said. The test also detected a large mass in her right lung that was later confirmed to be stage 1B cancer.
Zinnemann said her first thought was that the doctors were wrong. “What do they know?” she said. “My second reaction was, ‘How can that possibly be?’
“I’m healthy,” she said. “I eat right. I exercise. I was never a heavy smoker and I quit more than 30 years ago.”
Doctors removed the lower lobe of Zinnemann’s right lung. She underwent tests every six months until this past February, when she was declared free of cancer. But Zinneman must continue to undergo scans annually.
After her diagnosis Zinnemann said she was surprised to learn the grim facts about lung cancer.
Every 2 1/2 minutes someone in the United States is diagnosed with lung cancer and every 3 minutes someone in this country will die from it, according to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America.
Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer — it claims more lives than breast, prostate, colon, liver, kidney and melanoma cancers combined, the foundation reports.
Lung cancer is generally asymptomatic and has no tests for early detection, resulting in most people being diagnosed in the later stages of the disease.
Lung cancer has the added stigma of being associated with tobacco use, a lifestyle choice; however, it is estimated that 60 percent of diagnosed lung cancer patients will be nonsmokers or who have quit smoking decades ago.
It has never been determined how or why Zinnemann got lung cancer. There is no history of the disease in her family, and although her mother was a heavy smoker, she said she doubts it was from secondhand smoke.
Zinnemann left home in her late teens. “It would have to have been incubating for 50 years,” she said, acknowledging that it is possible but not likely.
“It could have been environmental,” she said. “Early detection is the key because usually nobody is diagnosed until it is too late.”
She is hoping for the creation of a test similar to Pap smears, mammograms or colonoscopies to catch the disease in time to deal with it effectively.
“The only way to do that is to fund research,” she said.
With that thought, Zinnemann is hosting the second annual Day at the Races July 31 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Proceeds will benefit the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, which focuses on funding research programs.
The cost is $150 and includes entrance to the races, a lunch buffet on the patio of Il Palio Restaurant, two drinks, a private betting window, tours of the paddock, live and silent auctions and a raffle to determine who will present flowers and champagne to the winner of the Breath of Life horse race being dedicated to the organization.
Sponsorships are also available for $2,500 to $10,000. Zinnemann is also reserving part of an Amtrak car for anyone coming from the Los Angeles area, where she has lived for the past three years.
Last year about 100 people attended the event. “It was just a great day,” she said. “And going back on the Amtrak train is a party. Anybody who has lungs has to get in there and fund research.”
Visit, lcfamerica.org/day_at_the_races_2011.html for more information or to register.