Millions of people visit Ocean City, MD every year.  But once those visitors return home, Ocean City is really just like any other small town; everybody knows one another.  In February of 2010, this little microcosm received word that one of her own had been dealt a terrible hand.

PJ Aldridge–who up until that time was best known as an extremely successful realtor who loved golfing, surfing, and life in general—had been flown to a hospital in Baltimore, and was given three months to live.  This news was staggering, especially considering he had been on vacation in Costa Rica, surfing everyday; an activity that takes an immense amount of physical strength and presumed health to participate in.  The official diagnosis was stage IV lung cancer, and the doctor didn’t sugarcoat the amount of time he felt PJ had left.

An unexpected and devastating diagnosis, an extremely small amount of time to live projected…it’s the critical point—give up, or fight?  PJ, true to form, chose to fight.  After finding out that lung cancer is the highest diagnosed cancer, but receives the least amount of funding, PJ along with friend Vera Taylor started the PJ Aldridge Foundation for lung cancer research, awareness, and ultimately a cure.

To see PJ now, you’d never know what he was battling.  He has a boyish charm that beguiles his age.  He speaks with ease and openness, welcoming you into his circle, as if you’ve been life long friends.  He possesses a certain look–fashionable, tan, handsome, athletic—that could make him the veritable poster boy for coastal life.  But instead, PJ’s become the unlikely face of lung cancer.  What is perhaps more surprising than the unexpected diagnosis, is the way PJ embraces his role.

The comment heard again and again from PJ is, “I’m the most blessed person on the planet, no doubt.”  Meaning that he has received the love and support of his family, friends, and the community of Ocean City, but it also goes deeper than that.  Even though PJ battles lung cancer, he’s gifted daily by seeing the most positive aspects of humanity, a view not many people get to see.  It’s an interesting position to be in, a double-edged sword of sorts, but one that he holds high.  PJ doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to reach people.  He’s done videos, spoken at events, golf tournaments, concerts, and colleges.  In this whirlwind since his diagnosis, PJ has become a public figure, and he’s remarkably good at the role.  So good in fact that his supporters refer to PJ as “Rock Star.”  It’s a fitting moniker, and also well-represents PJAF’s mentality.

The PJ Aldridge Foundation is quite simply, different.  They do hold golf tournaments, and 5K races, but what they do better than anybody, is erase the fear factor with their unconventional approach.  Cancer itself is a devastating and terrifying word, no matter what type is pronounced.  But lung cancer holds a stigma all it’s own.  It’s often the type of cancer the general population feels is deserved, (i.e. the patient must have smoked.)  Or, it’s the cancer that results from having had other types of cancer, signifying that the disease has spread.

When PJ was diagnosed, the expectation was that he must be in bed, incapacitated, without much hope.  Instead, he shot a PSA video on the beach, and speaking directly to the camera, declared his disease. He actively worked on the foundation bearing his moniker, (unprecedented in that most foundations are started posthumously in memory of someone, not with a freewheeling mascot for the cause).

In speaking of the foundation, it began as an idea, followed by a Facebook page.  Then in October of 2010 a week of events called “Pray for PJ Week,” that raised tens of thousands of dollars.  Directly following, PJ and Vera were invited to attend a taping of the Oprah show, and were given all of Oprah’s Favorite Things, recognized for being givers.  More unexpected things have happened, quickly–PJ was invited to golf with top-notch pro Sara Brown–who is now a supportive friend.  The designer Robert Graham, informed that PJ was a fan of his iconic dress shirts, is now a sponsor of the foundation.  (PJ and Vera will be attending the prestigious Monterey Car Week in California, at the bequest of Robert Graham, who is holding an event to benefit PJAF.)  This link between cancer and fashion embodies the notion that a person with cancer doesn’t have to hide, or feel ashamed.

There was once a time twenty or some odd years ago when the discussion of breast cancer was considered taboo.  Society deemed it to be a women’s disease, and in an old-fashioned and buttoned up way, it wasn’t appropriate for conversation, nor was it important enough to receive funding.  The Susan G. Komen Foundation changed all of that.  The PJ Aldridge Foundation hopes to follow in their footsteps, even if it means taking things way outside the tidy box usually reserved for cancer funding.

Oprah gifts, fashion designers as supporters, and golf pros as pals aren’t the normal platform enhancers for cancer foundations, but this alternative approach is really at the core of why PJAF has created a name for itself in the world of cancer, so quickly.  Putting a new foundation on the map takes a huge amount of effort, and a lot of innovation.  For PJAF, it’s working.  They are now partnering with big names in lung cancer–Nicolle Foland, from The Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, (a foundation who has raised over six million dollars), and Jennifer Windrum, who has started a well-recognized social media campaign against lung cancer WTF?, in short they’ve arrived.  In addition, PJAF recently presented PJ’s doctor, Dr. Edelman who heads the Thoracic Research Facility at the University of Maryland, with a check for $150,000.

As much as this is a success story, PJAF is still a long ways away from their goals.  PJ was given a fighting chance against the disease in large part, due to a relatively new drug called Tarceva, but not every patient is so lucky.  Funding for innovative drugs that provide patients with real hope at survival, takes millions of dollars.

In an ever-present quest to raise as much funding as possible, PJAF is currently raffling off all items they were given from Oprah (all of her Favorite Things 2010, the last ever installment.)  Visit their website to purchase tickets.  One ticket is $20 or six for $100.  As of press time the chance of winning was one in 2500.

At the heart of the matter is of course, PJ Aldridge.  More than everything else, this is a tale of a local man from a small town, who was thrown a big curveball.  His purpose in life now far supercedes an individual plight; his battle is fought publicly in the name of millions.  It’s a tall order, this removing of a long-standing stigma, and the potential for real change.  But PJ has risen to the occasion, acting as an ambassador, ushering in a new way of perceiving lung cancer, and providing real hope for those that need it most.

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