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The Warrior: Erika Hlavacek

The Warrior: Erika Hlavacek

As told to Britt Julious

I’m four years in now, but I’ve learned a lot in the four years and the narratives behind lung cancer need to be rewritten.

We had moved out of the city to start our suburban life with our kids. I was an airline pilot. That’s where my husband and I met—we both flew airplanes. It was the summer of 2017 and I had a cough. It didn’t go away. Everyone in the family had a cough, too, but theirs all went away. I didn’t think anything of it at first. 

Then I started having some back pain that went along with it. I went to the doctor several times, and it never led to anything except for misdiagnosis. Eventually, the back pain became so bad that I had to go to the hospital and I knew something was really wrong. I knew that I was not coming out so quickly. 

Ten days later, I left the hospital with a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis. 

[I was] completely blindsided. No risk factors for the disease. I knew nothing about lung cancer. I was just mourning this life that I thought I was gonna have that has completely changed overnight. What do I do now? What do I do in this space? 

I just researched and researched and read. I found other survivors that were thriving with the disease. Everyone should know the real facts. It just takes lungs to get lung cancer. I’m one of the almost 20 percent of newly diagnosed non-smoking young women and nobody knows why. I was lucky and found out a genetic mutation was driving my cancer. 

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There [were] new research breakthroughs in the form of pills that would allow me pretty much a normal life. No one around me even knew that I had stage IV lung cancer because of these pills. They basically stop the cancer from growing. They don’t kill all the cells in your body; they just stop the cancer from growing so you can go on with your day. It allowed me the space to become an advocate for myself and for other lung cancer survivors. I wanted my kids to see how you can turn this around.

My husband and I, during the pandemic, decided to start a nonprofit. It’s called yEAHbestlife. We wanted to remind everyone to live their best lives every day while we raise money for lung cancer research. So far, we’ve raised $30,000. 

I started hashtagging #bestlife on everything I did because I realize time is a gift. We need to make the most of every day, stop putting things off and be present. We only have today, we’re not promised tomorrow. 

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