Cancer issue strikes close to home

My friend is dying. The doctors, the people in the know, tell us he won't survive more than a few months.

Last weekend we -- his other friends and I -- gathered to sort through bags of photos. It was like sorting through his mind. Broken images lacking context. Pieces of his 37 years.

We were planning his memorial service.

We decided to spread the hundreds of images out on a table so, when the time comes, mourners could take a memory home. A piece of the man they loved, to place on a shelf. To keep his memories alive.

This is how we cope.

It would be cliche to sit here and dwell on the tragedy of death at 37. Death is traumatic regardless of the age.

It would be futile to rail against the crunch of fate that led us all to this point. This place where we have been forced to witness the melting out of a funny, vibrant, caring person.

He is a shell now. The calcium building up in his system leaves him confused and forgetful. It isn't fair, but then, what is?

It's lung cancer. Didn't I say? He smoked most of his life. The tumor is in his chest cavity, placing pressure on his heart.

Do you feel less sympathy suddenly? Some may.

What if I told you his smoking had nothing to do with it. That it was genetic Russian Roulette that caused his cancer.

Does that change how you feel? Have you rediscovered your humanity?

Statistics tell me that yearly more people die from lung cancer than breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined.

And yet, according to the American Cancer Society, only $1,200 per lung cancer death is spent on research each year.

That tiny number compared with $11,425 per breast cancer death, $8,190 per prostate cancer death, and $3,350 per colorectal cancer death. To me this paints an obvious picture of bias.

A study published this year by Oxford University Researcher Alison Chapple, PH.D, RN, and her colleagues, found that lung cancer patients feel there is a stifling stigma associated with their disease.

Chapple reports that the stigma stems from two sources.

One is that 90 percent of lung cancer is linked to smoking. The general public feels that lung cancer is a "self-inflicted" disease.

Chapple said that this attitude tends to cut lung cancer patients off from normal lines of support and shames them.

The other source of stigma is fear. The good intentions of antismoking ads have painted lung cancer as a particularly horrid, filthy disease. Patients told Chapple that family and friends often avoided them out of embarrassment and disgust.

One patient reportedly told Chapple "people think you're dirty because you smoked."

This is flat-out wrong. If researchers were able to prove definitively that breast cancer was caused by eating pesticide laden fruit, would we suddenly stop racing for a cure?

It shouldn't matter. People are dying; 160,000 last year alone. This is a silent epidemic.

The high death rate among lung cancer victims can partially be blamed on lack of effective screening techniques.

Unlike people considered at risk for other cancers, potential lung cancer victims have no early detection tools. As a result, most lung cancers are not detected until they are in the later stages.

At which point, patients have only a 30 to 35 percent chance of surviving beyond one year, with less than a 1 percent chance of surviving beyond five years.

In late stage cancer cases, all doctors can do is prolong life with chemotherapy.

There is some hope. An early detection screening method is being developed.

It combines two types of imaging techniques. Early trials have shown that by joining spiral computed tomography (CT) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, doctors can reliably detect early lung cancers.

This new technique is not without detractors, and many feel that it isn't as reliable as early results indicate.

There are a number of case studies being done around the world using this new detection tool.

If the promises pan out, doctors will finally have a solid screening test for high risk patients to undergo yearly.

This is good news. Researchers say that lung cancer survival rates rise above 80 percent when the cancer is detected and removed early.

None of this will help my friend. His cancer was too far gone when doctors finally realized that his "bronchitis" was something more serious.

What will help him is unconditional, nonjudgmental love.

The awareness ribbon for lung cancer is clear, because its victims are invisible to the world. It's time for that to change.

This is National Lung Cancer Awareness Week. Tell somebody.

More information on lung cancer and lung cancer support services can be found at or by calling 1-877-646-LUNG.

(Erin Zysett is a reporter for the Itemizer-Observer.)


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment