Growing up in Nicetown, Tonya Sears never heard much about lung cancer, a disease which claimed her grandfather's life when she was just five years old.

Heartwrenching awareness came when her sister Donna was diagnosed with the ultimately fatal disease in 2006. That was followed by her mother Dinah DuPriest's death from the disease in Nov. 2007 and her aunt Melody Beverly's passing in August.

Those losses got the family talking about the disease.

They also inspired Sears to help raise awareness about lung cancer by participating in the Seventh Annual Free to Breathe Philadelphia Lung Cancer 5K run-and-walk from 7 to 10 a.m. Sunday in Fairmount Park.

A family effort

There, about 30 family members and friends will sport black hooded sweatshirts with emblazoned with photos of their loved ones and the phrase "DMD Breathers."

Last year, Sears was accompanied by her aunt whose dying wishes were for her family to proactively raise awareness and educate others about the disease.

Sears has tried to accomplish that by educating herself and others about what she calls a "silent disease." She has also become involved with Free to Breathe and the National Lung Cancer Partnership.

Though all the lost relatives were smokers at one point in their lives, Sears said the emphasis should be on the lack of preventive measures, not the causes.

"It doesn't matter how it happens," she said. "We still need to find early detection, early testing treatments and we need to talk about it. If research is available, so many people can get treatment early and survive."

Afflicted and stigmatized

Sears maintained that a negative stigma attached to the disease, where people feel that the victims did it to themselves, feeds into a lack of awareness.

According to the National Lung Cancer Partnership, lung cancer claims more lives than breast, colon and prostate cancer each year. Meanwhile, it receives significantly less research funding than the others.

Non-smokers affected, too

While it's true that current or former smokers constitute the vast majority of those who suffer from the disease, an estimated 10 percent of non-smokers are diagnosed annually.

Though lung cancer is not thought to be hereditary, Sears can't help but to think about all the relatives that she lost because of the disease. That's why she said she has never smoked exercises regularly and eats healthy.

Sears encouraged anyone that has a family history of lung cancer to at least get a chest x-ray when they get their annual physical examination. She also hopes the event will become an annual gathering for her family and friends.

More information is available at www.freetobreathe.com.