LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Lung cancer kills more people than any other cancer, yet it's the one that receives the least amount of funding for research.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness month. While most people think it's just a smoker's disease, the truth is it can affect just about anyone.
Elizabeth Melde, 25, and her husband Matt of La Crosse are newlyweds. When they tied the knot in August of last year, they had high hopes for the beginning of the rest of their lives together. "We were going to take a few years and just travel and then start a family, that's kind of what we wanted to do," says Matt.
Elizabeth was working as a certified nursing assistant and going to school to become an RN. This summer, she came down with what she thought was a bad cold. "It wouldn't go away and it was probably like a week, week and a half the cough kept going and the cough kept getting a little bit worse," says Elizabeth.
It eventually was diagnosed as bronchitis and then pneumonia and a biopsy was done. The results came back about five days earlier than expected. It was the start of Oktoberfest weekend in La Crosse. Elizabeth says, "I was like, oh awesome, I get the results back early and I get to go out Oktoberfesting, we were excited." "I thought it was a little weird, they called so early, I actually thought it was a good sign, I thought if it was something bad, they'd want to double and triple check and make sure before they told us," says Matt.
The news was beyond what they could have ever imagined. "We got there and it was just a bomb, just a big bomb dropped," says Elizabeth.
"I just started crying right away. I just shut down," says Matt.
"I just looked at him and I was in shock, I just kept telling him no, you're joking that's not true, I'm 25, no way," Elizabeth says.
But it was no joke. At the young age of 25, Elizabeth had lung cancer. "He was very upset and I just sat there. I don't think I cried once until I left the hospital just because I was like this isn't right, wake me up, this just isn't right."
"It was shocking," says Elizabeth's mom, Monica Holman.
"Shocking is the word, because when she told us that, we were like, 'No you don't.' You're the typical thing you think about, not a smoker, you don't work in a smoking environment, you're so young, how could you have lung cancer," says Elizabeth's dad, Steve Holman.
The cancer was already Stage 4. It had spread beyond the lungs and into the bones. Her case is so rare even her doctors questioned the diagnosis at first. "I was surprised, yeah, yeah. It definitely was surprising especially given the fact that she really didn't have any risk factors for lung cancer," says Mayo Clinic Health System oncologist Dr. Paula Gill.
What were supposed to be Elizabeth and Matt's first few years of wedded bliss suddenly came to a screeching halt. "We're supposed to be out doing stuff, out celebrating being newlyweds, out traveling and now we have this to deal with," says Elizabeth.
But Elizabeth wasn't about to take on this fight sitting down. "It's not worth being sad all the time, I just have to live my life," she says.
"You can curl up in a ball and do nothing or you can stand up and say we're going to fight this thing and we're going to make this happen," says Steve.
Elizabeth has already undergone one round of chemotherapy and 13 radiation treatments. She's also set to be part of a clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Doctors are unsure of her exact prognosis because her case is so unusual. "One thing that works in Elizabeth's favor is she is so young and otherwise healthy and doesn't have any other medical problems, so that's one thing that's going to allow us to treat her as aggressively as we can," says Dr. Gill.
And Elizabeth has a huge support network helping her in her fight. Her family and friends started a Facebook page called Team Elizabeth. Nearly a thousand people are members, many Elizabeth hasn't even met. Elizabeth says, "They're telling me you're so strong, I'm fighting for you, I'm praying for you, people are saying you don't know me, and it's just wonderful, it's amazing."
"It's almost like she has a duty now, she's going to work and do everything she can to make sure she conquers the disease," says Monica.
Elizabeth is not the typical face of lung cancer, yet at just 25 years old, she's facing the fight of her life. "Don't take anything for granted, another cliché, but the clichés become real when this is happening," says Elizabeth.
Family and friends are holding a benefit for Elizabeth in the new year. It's set for Jan. 14 from 6 p.m. until midnight at Waterfront's Cargill Room. There will be music from Studebaker 7, a wine tasting and silent auction.
In the meantime, a fund has been set up to help Elizabeth and Matt with their medical expenses. If you'd like to help out, you can make a check payable to Matt Melde and send it to:
The Elizabeth Melde Benefit
c/o Morrison & Associates
330 6th Street South
La Crosse, WI 54601