Nonsmokers, lung cancer deserves your awareness and support

Nonsmokers, lung cancer deserves your awareness and support

As the pink glow that illuminates this nation in October fades, let me ask you this. What cancer kills more women each year? Breast cancer or lung cancer? (See this report for more details.)

Since 1987, lung cancer has killed more women than breast cancer every year. In fact, 90% of people diagnosed with breast cancer survive. Only 16% diagnosed with lung cancer do.

You would think the savagery of the disease would spark the biggest of all awareness movements, wouldn’t you? Well, November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. You know how I knew?

I was walking with my dog on Saturday in a forest preserve and I saw a group of about 12 people walking together. One was holding a sign. I stopped to talk to her and found that her mother died of lung cancer three years ago. This was her memory walk.

I thought of the dozens of photos on my newsfeed in October of pink-clad crowds, the status updates about breast cancer, the overwhelmingly supportive feedback extended to those diagnosed.

As a person with another of the “smokers” cancers, bladder cancer, I can tell you that I long to see crowds of people dressed in orange during our May walks. Our local Chicago group has been so encouraging, gathering about 50 or 60 people each year, producing t-shirts, raising money. But I can’t imagine the army of support that breast cancer survivors receive.

It feels so good to be around people who’ve been where I’ve been, among families who’ve lost someone, to honor their memories. It doesn’t cure cancer, but it brings comfort and relieves the alienation and shame.

The worst part about lung cancer is its physical brutality and power to destroy. The second, I’m going to guess, is the stigma attached to it.

I’ve been present when someone said to a group, “I have a lung cancer.” Another person responded, “Oh, you smoke?”

lung-cancer-alliance_smug-v1Can you imagine saying to someone with breast cancer, “Oh, you drink too much?” “Oh, yeah, you are overweight.” “Oh, bad genes, huh?” or “Oh, why didn’t you have kids?”

I get it. None of these things have the same impact that smoking does in causing lung, bladder, and other cancers.

But even if they did, it would be cruel to say them to someone with breast cancer. When we tell people about the calamity afflicting our lives, it’s just plain cruel to shove it back in our faces.

It’s true that the vast majority of folks with lung cancer are or were smokers. A friend of mine, who recently died of lung cancer, hadn’t smoked for more than 30 years when she was diagnosed. I’ve never been a heavy or regular or consistent smoker. But apparently Stephanie and I both smoked enough to do the trick.

Let me assure you that judgment from nonsmokers, folks who may have never been addicted to nicotine, in no way enlighten, empower, or comfort those of us who are suffering more than you can imagine because of our sins.

In fact, that judgment and stigma make it worse and may also create an environment where smokers avoid or delay diagnosis and treatment, encounter a lower quality of care, and face isolation and depression.

And, nonsmokers, listen up. Here’s the other thing. Of the people who die each year from lung cancer, 16,000 to 24,000 never smoked. Lung cancer is in the list of the top 10 fatal cancers for nonsmokers.

So, please, don’t sit back in your chairs, breathe a sigh of relief and pride because you don’t smoke. Know that our entire community is threatened by this cancer.

More people die from lung cancer than breast, prostate, and colon combined. And yet, the National Cancer Institute spent $285.9 million on research for lung cancer in 2013. The NCI spent $559 million on research for breast cancer the same year.

If you combine research dollars spent on breast, prostate and colon, you end up with more than $1 billion dollars of research money despite the fact that lung cancer is a magnitude more deadly. It’s time we all stepped up to support people with lung cancer and the research to improve the care and treatment of a terrible disease.

To find ways to support:

Lung Cancer Alliance

The American Lung Association

For information about the stigma, see this booklet published by the American Lung Association, “Addressing the Stigma of Lung Cancer.”

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Filed under: Cancer, Smoking

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