Shantel VanSanten has turned a personal tragedy into a catalyst for helping others.
“It left my family and I in a lot of confusion, and to our ignorance, we did not know that lung cancer was the number one cancer killer and that it could happen to anyone. We made the grave assumption that it could only happen to people who smoked,” VanSanten, who has since joined the American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE, an initiative dedicated to defeating lung cancer, tells PEOPLE.
As part of LUNG FORCE’s National Women’s Lung Health Week (May 6-12) and LUNG FORCE’s partnership with CVS Health, where from May 6-26, you can visit a CVS pharmacy to donate $1, $3 or more to raise funds for lung cancer awareness, research and education (for more info, visit Lung.org/CVS) – VanSanten is sharing her story and what she has learned in hopes of educating others.
VanSanten and her grandmother, both from Minnesota, were extremely close. When Dooyema, who had been a breast cancer survivor, started experiencing respiratory issues, and was ultimately diagnosed with lung cancer, VanSanten was her caretaker.
“I went through the entire process of watching my grandmother battle [the disease],” says the actress, who started sharing Dooyema’s story on Instagram. The experience made VanSanten want to get involved as a way to honor her “best friend’s” legacy.
After her grandmother passed, VanSanten and her family looked for answers, and were shocked at what they found. “We searched to understand what the cause was, and we found it was from radon poisoning, which was found in [her] basement.” According to the American Lung Association, radon, “a colorless, tasteless, orderless gas that can build up to dangerous levels inside buildings and homes,” is the second leading cause of lung cancer (after smoking).
“It’s preventable if you just educate yourself to test your home. You should test for radon before you move in and continue to test every five to seven years for radon,” explains VanSanten.
She continued: “There’s a gentleman who I am currently working with on set. I was educating him about radon and lung cancer and he tested his home and him and his wife are now not living in their home as they eraticate radon because they found that the levels were toxic.”
According to the American Lung Association, only 18 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed early, which is when the disease is most curable. VanSanten explains stats like this and “the stigma” that only smoking causes lung cancer “isn’t meant to scare people to say anyone can get it,” she says, “but to educate people that there are causes other than smoking” and to understand risk factors.
“When I sat and have spoken to [lung cancer] patients, they started off having a very persistent cough, bronchitis, any respitarory issues or say, you’ve been around second-hand smoke or live in a polluted city, those are big red flags to stay on your doctor,” says VanSanten, who also suggests visiting SavedByTheScan.org, “where you can take a quiz to see if you’re high risk and should be screened.”
For her part, VanSanten will continue to help bring awareness to lung cancer.
“For me it’s like my life’s work,” says VanSanten. “I tattooed my grandmother’s initials on my wrist so every time somebody asks I can have a conversation and educate people and tell them her story in her honor.”