Kathie Cheney is a Florida girl, one of five sisters, born and reared in Miami Beach. In her freshman year at Miami Dade Jr. College, she met fellow student, Kevin Cheney, and they became fast friends. Later they both transferred to the University of Florida and graduated in 1968. Kathie earned a degree in Education with the intention of teaching science and math. Kevin graduated, joined the Air Force and began a 26-year flying career.
As a lark, Kathie decided to take flight attendant training with Eastern Airlines the summer before she was to begin teaching. She enjoyed the training so much that her short- term venture became a 20-year career. Kathie recalls, “It was the perfect job for me. When you deal with the public, it is never boring! Every day was different and I got to fly to so many places.”
During this time, Kevin was flying an F-4 fighter jet in Vietnam and had completed one tour of duty and extended for another tour. In 1972, Kevin was shot down over Hanoi. After three months of uncertainty, Kathie learned he was on a list of POWs at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Kevin was released a year later and Kathie flew to the hospital at Maxwell Air Force Base to greet him. They stayed close friends during their various career assignments, finally getting together after both were based in Miami in the 80’s. They married in Miami and had a son, Patrick. In 1987, when Patrick was 9 months old, Kathie got the news that would change the course of her life and career. She was diagnosed with throat cancer.
Describe what happened when you were diagnosed with throat cancer.
I mentioned to my doctor that I had a swollen gland that was not getting better. He was concerned enough to refer me to a surgical oncologist. Medical tests indicated I had throat cancer that had already spread to a lymph gland in my neck. My type of throat cancer was usually found in people who were heavy, long-term smokers. I was a nonsmoker. My doctor wondered if I got this cancer from breathing cigarette smoke on the planes but medical studies on secondhand smoke were not conclusive in 1987.
After surgery, my treatment included five days of radiation a week for almost three months. The side effects were the hardest to deal with. To this day, I have a throat that is still swollen, a tender mouth and a husky voice. I choke easily and have very limited energy.
My main goal during my illness was to aim for the five year, cancer-free milestone and see Patrick get on a school bus and go off to school for the first time. I was fortunate. Two of my flight attendant friends also were diagnosed with cancer but did not live to see their babies’ second birthdays.
How did you get involved with the campaign to highlight the dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke?
In the mid-80’s, Congress started pressuring airlines to begin eliminating smoking on planes. I never had the chance to work on a smoke-free plane. After my treatments I had to go on long-term disability. Eastern Airlines went bankrupt in 1991. About this time, I learned attorneys were willing to represent nonsmoking flight attendants with smokers’ diseases in a class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industry. In 1997, after four months of trial before a jury, the tobacco industry was willing to settle for $300 million with the stipulation that all the money after expenses be earmarked for research. They were unwilling to pay any money to flight attendants directly. All the flight attendants agreed to this settlement and a foundation was established, the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute (FAMRI), which sponsors research for the early detection, prevention, treatment and cure of medical conditions caused from exposure to tobacco smoke.
Tell us about your involvement in local and statewide efforts to ban smoking in restaurants.
In 1995 I joined a committee in Peachtree City to look at secondhand smoke in businesses. After years of speaking throughout the state, I began to see public sentiment change— more people desired a smoke-free environment. In 2004, Peachtree City passed an ordinance requiring restaurants to be smoke free, with an exception for free-standing bars. It became a model for other cities and for Georgia’s Smoke Free Air Act, which passed in 2005.
What are your health concerns today?
In 2001 I was diagnosed with a 95% clogged carotid artery – something that usually shows up in heavy smokers. In 2005, I learned I had breast cancer. Now I am coping with COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is difficult for me to walk very far without stopping to catch my breath. Smoking-related diseases are increasingly debilitating.
What have you learned through all these challenging experiences?
We all have an opportunity to make a difference in our community. Get involved in the issues that are important to you. Don’t break the rules; change the rules, if you see the need for change. Be willing to go to the meetings and write the letters and convince people that the change is important and worthwhile. You could make a difference that saves a life.
FAMRI is funding a study of non-smoking flight attendants, age 40 and above, who worked in smoke- filled planes. FAMRI is looking for candidates who fit these criteria to be involved in the study. One of the sites is St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. If you are interested, contact Alice Kerber at 678-843-7118. For more information, go to www.famri.org.