Read Time: 4 minutes
When Kerri Robbins and her husband moved to Lehi, Utah in 2018, it seemed like everything was falling into place. Kerri’s dream job offered her a remote position, and after finding a house they loved in Lehi, she and her husband close proximity to three of their grown children. Just five years later, however, Kerri’s path took an unexpected turn.
In June 2022, Kerri started off her Friday morning as usual with a quick treadmill workout. After just 20 minutes, she began coughing and became very confused and disorientated. At the insistence of her husband and daughter, Kerri visited the emergency room. An MRI scan showed that Kerri had a brain tumor, and a later scan showed an additional one. After meeting with an oncologist, Kerri was officially diagnosed with stage 4 non-smoking lung cancer, which had spread to her brain. Kerri recalls a sense of disbelief upon receiving the diagnosis. “I felt no different from the day before,” she says.
Two months after her diagnosis, Kerri called the office of Wallace Akerley, MD, oncologist and director of the Lung Cancer Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Akerley suggested that she test her home for radon. Kerri had heard of radon before but was unaware she needed to test for it. “I didn’t know what radon was, so I assumed it must not have anything to do with me,” she explains.
Radon is a naturally formed radioactive gas created in the soil, and it can often be found in homes and buildings. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Breathing it in over extended periods of time can cause damage to cells in the lungs. Radon is common in the Mountain West region—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 33% of Utah homes have unsafe radon levels.
The EPA considers 4 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) to be unsafe, and when Kerri tested her home, she found radon levels at nearly 32 pCi/L. “How had I never known? I was so floored,” Kerri remarks. “I loved my home, and to find out it was my home that caused my cancer was devastating.”
Immediately, Kerri began to act. “If this happened to me, it can happen to others,” she says. That night, Kerri reached out to her neighborhood Facebook group and told them about her situation, encouraging them to test their homes.
Whenever she had the chance, Kerri began telling others to test their homes for radon as well. “If I’m in the grocery line, and you’re standing behind me, I turn around saying, ‘Hey, have you had your home tested for radon?’” Kerri even handed out business cards printed by Utah Radon Services with a QR code linking to home radon tests. She says many of the people she speaks to have no idea what radon is or that they need to test for it.
Testing for radon is easy and inexpensive. If you live in Utah, order a test kit at radon.utah.gov or buy one from any home improvement store. If you are buying a new home, buy a test kit through a certified appraiser.
Eventually, Kerri started working with Eleanor Divver, the Radon Project Coordinator at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Together, they have given numerous presentations across Utah about the importance of radon testing. In October 2023, Kerri was invited to speak at the International Radon and Vapor Intrusion Symposium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Kerri explains that spreading awareness towards radon has given her a new purpose since her diagnosis. “I feel like I’ve been given a mission,” she says. One initiative she is most excited about is Utah Radon Services’ new website. According to Kerri, its mission is to “reduce the number of unnecessary radon-induced lung cancer deaths through education and free testing.” Kerri has been asked to become an advisory board member, along with Dr. Akerley.
“As many times as I’ve recited my story, it still chokes me up, because it’s still hard to believe that this has actually happened.” Kerri also expressed immense gratitude to others who have spoken about their own difficult situations.
After receiving targeted radiation treatment and chemotherapy, Kerri says regular scans have shown that the tumors in her brain have been destroyed, and the tumor in her lung has been shrinking. Additionally, the radon in Kerri’s home has been mitigated by Utah Radon Services. “I thought mitigation would be expensive, but it’s a lot cheaper than cancer!” Kerri jokes.
Even now, Kerri keeps a radon monitor on her kitchen counter. “I can see the radon levels in my home at any point when I walk downstairs,” she adds. “The peace of mind that the monitor gives to me—I can’t even tell you what that means to me.”
Kerri urges everyone to test their homes for radon, whether they rent or own, and to tell their loved ones to test as well. “Every home in Utah deserves to know what their radon levels are,” Kerri asserts.