Lung Cancer The White Ribbon Project

The White Ribbon Project | The Smoking Stigma

Bonnie Ulrich

Background: Focused on family and being the “fun grandma,” 3x lung cancer survivor with a smoking history
Focus: Building empathy for all patients, regardless of smoking history, and encouraging early detection for everyone to save lives

The White Ribbon Project Stories

Bonnie Ulrich
Breaking the Smoking Stigma

Story 6 of The White Ribbon Project Stories

You can sum up Bonnie Ulrich in two words: fun and family. And in the family, in her own words, she proudly wears the title of “fun grandma.”

“My passion are my grandchildren, I’ve got these four little nuggets that just have such a place in my heart that, you know, I didn’t think there’d be room for anything else. And they’ve really gotten me through some of the rough days as well.”

And she’s had many of those rough days. When Bonnie was 45, she started experiencing pain shooting down her arm. She thought it was from weightlifting. Just in case, she went to see her doctor.

“I was a smoker and he always took X-rays of my chest, just to be sure. And sure enough, he said, there’s something there. I’m not liking the looks of it.”

Two scans and a biopsy later, Bonnie learned she had stage 1 lung cancer. Thankfully, it was early enough for treatment to be surgery-only.

But Bonnie felt conflicted.  She felt both relieved and also ashamed.

“I was feeling defeated. I was feeling guilty because as a smoker back then with the mindset that if you get lung cancer, it’s because you’re a smoker. What if I never smoked? What if I hadn’t done that? What if I didn’t work in the bars and inhale secondhand smoke? What if? What if? What if?”

After successful surgery, Bonnie was officially in remission. Still, for follow-up, she got yearly scans to check for signs of cancer.

She felt fine until Year 13, when she started coughing and feeling shortness of breath.

“I went back to my primary doctor and he did a chest X-ray, didn’t see anything. I had a cat scan in January 2019. Nothing showed up, but my primary doctor followed up with some bloodwork and did a CA-125 (test). My CA-125 was so elevated.”

A bronchial biopsy later, the results were not what Bonnie and her family were hoping for.

The lung cancer was back.

“My daughter and my husband were with me at the oncologist office when they gave me my diagnosis. And what I heard stage three lung cancer, I literally went down to my knees, and I probably couldn’t tell you much more about that appointment. Except that I remember asking the oncologist, ‘Am I going to die?'”

Bonnie says she immediately felt very isolated, wondering if she was the only person going through the same experience.

That was when she met a woman who’d also been diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. Heidi Nafman Onda quickly became a friend.

“Wow, I wasn’t alone anymore. And not only did I have this lady who I’ve never met, who lives in another state have so much in common with her. But she introduced me to a whole world of lung cancer patients.”

That world was made up of passionate lung cancer advocates in The White Ribbon Project, a grassroots effort started by Heidi that seeks to spread an important message:

Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, and everyone impacted by lung cancer should join our group.It was the first time Bonnie felt so accepted into the lung cancer community.

As she opened up to The Patient Story about her smoking history, she described how she even began. It was early in her life, when she was just a kid.

“I was a smoker since I was 15 or 16, because that was the cool and fun thing to do back in the day.”

Ask anyone in The White Ribbon Project and you’ll hear the same message: the lack of empathy for lung cancer patients with a history of smoking is hurting the entire lung cancer community. The more love there is for everyone, the more unity there will be in the drive to get more awareness, more funding, and more research for newer lung cancer treatments.

And one day, a cure.

Now she’s hoping to also lead with love, and encourage others hit by lung cancer to claim their place and their story.

“The support is out there. There are survivors that are 10 and 12 year survivors that had stage four lung cancer. There are survivors out there that have a history of smoking. There are survivors out there that’ve never smoked a cigarette a day in their life. So what is the common ground? We all have lungs.”

Being a part of The White Ribbon Project motivated Bonnie to do something to build support in her own community.

“I had that sense of feeling so alone after my 2019 diagnosis because my cancer center didn’t hand me a book and say, look, we have support groups for lung cancer. There was for breast cancer. There was for all the other cancers, but there was nothing for lung cancer. I brought lung cancer awareness into my cancer center through The White Ribbon Project.”

Another focus for Bonnie and the group is vocalizing to anyone who’ll listen that early detection is key – for everyone.

“Get a low dose cat scan, the cancer centers are starting to – early, early detection is the key. If you are smoking, that’s OK. Get tested there. There’s tools, there’s people. There’s ways to stop. But the most important thing that I would would stress is get tested, get checked even if you are a smoker. Because it can be detected early and it can be. It can save your life.”

Bonnie says times have changed so much. Research has opened up new paths for better treatments and better experiences living after a cancer diagnosis.

The White Ribbon Project group believes growing the community will lead to true awareness, empathy, and support of the lung cancer movement, thereby leading to even more life-changing and life-saving research.

“Even when I had the first diagnosis in 2006 was a death sentence. It was a death sentence. You know, people can’t survive with that, and it’s not a death sentence anymore.”

Now, this family woman has been able expand those she considers family well beyond blood lines to each person who holds the white ribbon as dear to their heart as she does.

I just have amazing people in my life, and I’m so grateful to each and every one of them. 

→Back to The White Ribbon Project Stories

Inspired by Bonnie's story?

Share your story, too!

More non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) stories


Yovana P., Non-Small Cell, Invasive Mucinous Adenocarcinoma (IMA), Stage 1B

Cancer details: Had no genetic mutations; IMAs comprise between 2-10% of all lung tumors
1st Symptoms:
No apparent symptoms
Lobectomy of the left lung

Dave B., Non-Small Cell, Neuroendocrine Tumor, Stage 1B

Cancer details: Neuroendocrine tumor
1st Symptoms: 2 bouts of severe pneumonia despite full health
Treatment: Lobectomy (surgery to remove lobe of lung)

Terri C., Non-Small Cell, KRAS+, Stage 3A

Cancer details: KRAS-positive, 3 recurrences → NED
1st Symptoms: Respiratory problems
Treatment: Chemo (Cisplatin & Alimta), surgery (lobectomy), chemo, microwave ablation, 15 rounds of SBRT radiation (twice)

Heidi N., Non-Small Cell, Stage 3A

Cancer details: Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
1st Symptoms: None, unrelated chest CT scan revealed lung mass & enlarged mediastinal lymph nodes
Treatment: Chemoradiation

Tara S., Non-Small Cell, ALK+, Stage 4 (Metastatic)

Cancer details: ALK+ occurs in 1 out of 25 non-small cell lung cancer patients
1st Symptoms:
Numbness in face, left arm and leg
Targeted radiation, targeted therapy (Alectinib)

Lisa G., Non-Small Cell, ROS1+, Stage 4 (Metastatic)

Cancer Details: ROS1+ tends to be aggressive. It can spread to the brain and to the bones.
1st Symptoms: Persistent cough (months), coughing a little blood, high fever, night sweats
Treatment: Chemo (4 cycles), maintenance chemo (4 cycles)

Stephen H., Non-Small Cell, ALK+, Stage 4 (Metastatic)

Cancer details: ALK+ occurs in 1 out of 25 non-small cell lung cancer patients
1st Symptoms: Shortness of breath, jabbing pain while talking, wheezing at night
Treatment: Targeted therapy (alectinib), stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT)

Ivy E., Non-Small Cell, EGFR+, Stage 4 (Metastatic)

Cancer details: EFGR-positive
1st Symptoms: Pain & stiffness in neck, pain in elbow
Treatment: Two targeted therapies (afatinib & osimertinib), lobectomy (surgery to remove lobe of lung)

Ashley R., Non-Small Cell, EGFR+ T790M, Stage 4
Diagnosis: Stage IV Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
1st Symptoms: Tiny nodules in lungs
Treatment: Tagrisso (Osimertinib)

Shyreece P., Non-Small Cell, ALK+, Stage 4

Cancer details: ALK+ occurs in 1 out of 25 non-small cell lung cancer patients
1st Symptoms: Heaviness in arms, wheezing, fatigue
Treatment: IV chemo (carboplatin/pemetrexed/bevacizumab), targeted therapy (crizotinib, alectinib)
Amy G.

Amy G., Non-Small Cell Squamous, MET, Stage 4

1st symptoms: Lump in neck, fatigued
Treatment: Pembrolizumab (Keytruda), SBRT, cryoablation, Crizotinib (Xalkori)
Dan W. profile

Dan W., Non-Small Cell, ALK+, Stage 4

1st Symptoms: Cold-like symptoms, shortness of breath, chest pains
Treatment: Radiation, targeted therapy (Alectinib)

Tiffany J., Non-Small Cell Adenocarcinoma

1st Symptoms: Pain in right side, breathlessness
Treatment: Clinical trial of Tagrisso and Cyramza
Shyreece P.

Shyreece Pompey, Non-Small Cell, ALK+, Stage 4 - Update

Symptoms: Shortness of breath
Treatment: Chemotherapy (carboplatin, pemetrexed & bevacizumab), targeted therapy (crizotinib & alectinib), AT13387 (HSP90 inhibitor)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.