In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

December 10, 2019

Secret Service Agent With Stage 4 Lung Cancer Runs to Raise Awareness, End Stigma

By In the Loop

Rod Wellman, a 46-year-old lifelong athlete and never-smoker, was blindsided by a diagnosis of lung cancer. Thanks to his efforts to raise awareness, others are learning about the disease.

Rod Wellman stood at the starting line of the Javelina Jundred, ready to tackle the 100 kilometer race. Like the runners who surrounded him, Rod had put in hundreds of training miles to prepare for the grueling event near Fountain Hills, Arizona. He had a plan for hydrating and refueling and had a team to support him on the course. But there was one thing separating Rod from the rest of the pack. The 46-year-old lifelong athlete and never-smoker would be covering the distance with stage 4 lung cancer.

"I'm proof that if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer," Rod, a special agent with the United States Secret Service, tells us.

That's something he became all-too aware of last year, after a persistent cough led him to an urgent care center. "I thought it was just a chest cold," Rod tells Runner's World. "Then they told me I had stage 4 cancer." Rod was blindsided by the diagnosis. He found his way to Mayo Clinic in Arizona where oncologist Helen Ross, M.D., and radiation oncologist Thomas Daniels, M.D., came up with a plan to treat his disease. "The first time I met Dr. Ross I was reeling," Rod says. "I was thinking, 'I'm going to die.' But she shut that down right away. She told me this is something you can live with for a long time. That flipped a switch for me. My whole approach to this changed."

Thomas Daniels, M.D., Rod Wellman and Helen Ross, M.D.

That approach would soon include raising awareness — and funds — for lung cancer research. As Rod began learning about the disease, he discovered some sobering statistics. While lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, claiming more lives than the next three most deadly cancers combined, it receives the least amount of federal research funding. Rod suspects the stigma surrounding the disease may have something to do with that. "People think you get lung cancer because of your lifestyle," he says. "But it can be because of your DNA. I wish more people knew that."

Thanks to Rod's efforts, more people are learning. A few months after his diagnosis, he ran a 5K sponsored by the Go 2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, raising more than $8,000 for the foundation. But Rod wanted a bigger challenge — and a bigger platform — so he set his sights on the Javelina. "I want to raise awareness of the fact that lung cancer is underfunded," he tells Runner's World. What better way, he thought, than "to run 100K and try to raise $100,000."

Which led him to that starting line in October. And although Rod didn't quite finish the race, he raised more than $29,000 for the cause and covered 43 miles in a Go 2 Foundation T-shirt. Both Runner's World and the CBS Evening News ran stories on his efforts.

"This is a long fight, and we're just getting started," Rod told CBS. It's a fight he knows he's not in alone. Rod tells us he's grateful to his care team, his Secret Service colleagues, and the friends and family who are all standing beside him. "I have great support," he says. "When you have that you feel you can accomplish anything."

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Tags: Dr. Helen Ross, Dr. Thomas Daniels, Lung Cancer, Mayo Clinic in Arizona, Patient Stories

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