Lung cancer survivor – it is time to remove the stigma

This is a post I recently wrote for MD Anderson and was published on their Cancer Wise website

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I lost my dad to lung cancer. Thirteen years later, I was diagnosed with the same illness that took his life. The difference was he smoked two packs of cigarettes day and I never smoked.

My lung cancer diagnosis

Almost four months ago I was riding on top of the world, literally. In the midst of a 5-hour mountain bike ride at Colorado’s Eldora Ski Resort, I crashed. I was a little banged up and went in to get checked out. After a few stiches and a chest x-ray, I was cleared to go home with a bag of ice and some ibuprofen.

Two hours later, in the midst of grilling a summer BBQ, I missed a call from the clinic. The doctor left a voicemail saying that after a secondary review the radiologist noticed a spot on the upper apex of my left lung. He said it was probably nothing, perhaps even some scare tissue, and that I should schedule a CT scan within a couple of weeks. I turned to my wife and said, “There is no way that is good news.”

I called my primary physician the next day. I had to plead to get a CT scan ordered and scheduled. The next day the physicians assistant informed me there was in fact an indeterminate mass, but nothing to worry about. She said that given I was young and healthy, did not smoke and maintained a regular fitness routine, it was most likely a false positive.

Two days later a biopsy, subsequent pneumothorax, and test results revealed a positive diagnosis for stage 1 lung cancer.

I was stunned. Lung cancer, of all things? I use my lungs regularly at high altitude and high intensity. They work fine.

Lung cancer stigma

By the second day I had already become familiar with the ubiquitous question, immediately following knowledge of my diagnosis: “Did you smoke?”

It is a logical question. We all know smoking causes lung cancer.

When my dad was diagnosed I was emotionally devastated, however if I am honest, my response mimicked the party line, “Well I am not surprised, after all, you smoked two+ packs a day for 57 years.” 

His battle lasted 14 months. It was a hard road from surgery through chemotherapy. I helped him through the entire process, and amidst the hardships, our relationship deepened and evolved.

The reality is that lung cancer is a mass murderer on a global scale. According to the American Cancer Society, 13 percent of lung cancers are unrelated to smoking, and another 50% are in former smokers who have not smoked for 25+ years.

Until recently, even with a family history, I knew relatively little about this pernicious disease. I believed, like millions of others, that lung cancer was for smokers.

Changing the stigma surrounding lung cancer

Does it really matter if you smoked, worked with toxins, lived in a radon house, or randomly inhaled the wrong particles? Is anyone really in a position to claim that someone really deserves lung cancer? No, of course not.

We need to change the way the world looks at lung cancer. We need to build programs around awareness and educate the public, invest more money in research and therapies and support the promotion of healthy lifestyles and prevention. It is time for lung cancer to become as relevant in our culture as breast cancer. It is time to end the stigma. It is time for change.