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Advocating from Alaska

Last updated: July 2022

Through my advocacy work, I have the opportunity of making new friends in the lung cancer community and interact with so many wonderful people. I want to share with readers here about a new friend I recently got to know. Her story fascinates me.

Meet Kelly and Popof Island, Alaska

Lung cancer advocate KellyKelly O’Keefe Bjornstad lives in a community known as Sand Point on an island called Popof Island in Alaska. The tiny island, one of the Aleutian Islands, is only 10 miles long and five miles wide with a population of 578. Kelly has lived in Sand Point for more than four decades. Over the years, she held various positions in her town, including working at the local post office and doing finance and bookkeeping for a native island corporation. She was the school secretary for about 11 years and served as an on-call guard at the local jail.

“When my children were young,” says Kelly, “I did overnight 911 dispatching out of my home.”

Kelly is married to a native Alaskan who sits on the board of directors for a local native corporation and serves on the tribal council for one of the tribes. He works for the state of Alaska doing airport maintenance and operations, taking care of the runway and airport facilities.

Changes in Kelly's health

About a year ago, Kelly noticed her fingernails were red around the cuticles and the area was a little tender and more sensitive to cold. She also had edema in her legs. She visited the island clinic to ask about these concerns.

“They told me to cut back on salt and elevate my legs,” she says, “which I did, but that didn’t help. Then in December, I noticed my fingernails were really curved and growing downward. I Googled ‘Why are my nails growing downward?’ A picture of a lady’s blog had a photo that looked just like my fingernails.”

Kelly discovered that was called “clubbing” and it was a symptom of lung cancer.

“That was when I started freaking out,” she says. She called the local clinic to request an appointment, but they weren't seeing patients until after the new year.

“There was a lot of anxiety about this over Christmas and New Year’s...waiting for my clinic appointment. In January, I met with a visiting clinic nurse. She saw my fingernails and that set off alarms for her.”

The nurse took X-Rays and noticed a suspicious area in her lung.

“She was amazing,” says Kelly. “She stood behind me and said, ‘I hear a problem and she touched my back exactly where I thought I had pulled a muscle. But it wasn't a pulled muscle. It was the tumor.”

Traveling to Anchorage for scans

Popof Island does not have a doctor on the island. Alaska is so vast, with remote villages even smaller than Kelly’s, cancer patients must travel long journeys to get treatment. The traveling nurse made an appointment for Kelly to see a pulmonologist and get a CT scan in Anchorage, 600 miles from Popof Island. Roundtrip airfare from Popof Island to Anchorage costs a little over $900.

The day after arriving in Anchorage, Kelly saw the pulmonologist who scheduled her for a biopsy.

“All of a sudden, I'm going in for a biopsy trying to find someone who can pick me up from the hospital after that procedure to take me back to my hotel.”

Continue to read Kelly's story in Advocating from Alaska (Part 2).

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