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Lung cancer is no reason for shame

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http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.c ... C6OCK1.DTL

Lung cancer is no reason for shame

C.W. Nevius

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Sometimes Elin Ovick has a crazy thought. She wishes she had breast cancer.

"I can't tell you how often I have wished that,'' she says. "I have a friend who had breast cancer and who is now cancer-free. She looks back so wistfully on those days. It is so different for me.''

Ovick, 57, has lung cancer. And she knows your next question. No, she didn't smoke. Never did. She kept herself fit and active, avoided problem foods and didn't drink to excess.

But lung cancer didn't care. It came after her anyhow, as it does in the 12 to 15 percent of lung cancer victims who never have smoked -- and doctors, including Elin's oncologist, say they can't explain why it's increasing.

At this point in the story, there is usually a section explaining how Elin is fighting the disease every step of the way, how she'll never give up and what a great resilient spirit she has. That's all true.

Lung cancer doesn't care.

"I know that more than likely I am going to die,'' Elin says. "And it will probably be sooner than later.''

That's why she sometimes wishes she had breast cancer.

"Eighty-five percent of those who have breast cancer survive,'' Elin says. "Eighty-five percent of those with lung cancer die.''

Her husband, Joe, who is the superintendent of schools for Contra Costa County, and son Bjorn, 37, who works at Wells Fargo Bank, thought they knew their roles when this began. They'd buckle down and beat this thing.

Lung cancer doesn't care.

"That whole American way,'' says Bjorn, "of fighting and winning and being competitive. You think: We can beat this thing. But then you get to a point where you say: 'What else can you do?' ''

This isn't fair, of course. There's no justice in it. How can Elin Ovick, director of curriculum and instruction for the Liberty High School District in Brentwood, go in for a checkup on her persistent cough last February (doctors were sure it was asthma) and walk out wondering if she would see another birthday?

It is the lousy luck of life. Rotten things happen to good people. Who can explain it?

But there's more to this -- something that Elin noticed recently when ABC News anchor Peter Jennings announced that he had lung cancer. Then he admitted he was a former smoker who had recently started again.

"Here he is, facing this devastating news,'' Elin says, "and he feels like he has to apologize. I know this: Nobody deserves lung cancer.''

It isn't just the lung cancer victims who never smoked. Thirty-seven percent are former smokers. What's the message there? Sorry, you made a health mistake when you were younger, but now, even though you made the responsible decision and quit, you still deserve the consequences?

"The stereotype associated with lung cancer is that it is a disease of old men who have smoked all their life,'' Elin says. "So they, in the end, deserve it. That affects fund-raising efforts. Think about it. Have you ever heard of a walk to raise money for lung cancer?''

While it is true that organizations like bike4breath.org promote fund- raising efforts, they are usually general clearinghouse efforts for help with asthma, clean air and lung disease in general.

Elin asks you to consider some numbers. In 2003, an average of $18,000 was spent per breast cancer death and $10,500 per prostate cancer fatality. AIDS, which might be expected to have a lifestyle stigma, was funded at $30, 000 a death.

Lung cancer? Elin says the total was just $1,300 per death.

With the help of state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, the Ovicks are supporting SB564, which would put a new $1 tax on each pack of cigarettes sold. The money would go to preventive health programs for kids and breast cancer research, but they are asking that some of the money also go to finding a cure for lung cancer.

As Elin can tell you, there are plenty of people who aren't getting the point. She was talking to a woman the other day who gasped when she told her that SB564 might raise the cost of a cigarette pack by a dollar.

"She said that both of her kids smoked,'' Elin says. "She didn't know if they would be able to afford cigarettes.''

Well, you have to laugh, don't you? Except that when Elin does, it often triggers a cough. Still, she's fine for now, although tired from the chemotherapy and radiation. She's a trouper.

But sometimes, when she talks about how she knows she probably isn't going to make it, her voice begins to quaver with emotion.

That embarrasses her, and she apologizes. But she shouldn't. Because if there is anything we need to learn, it is that no one needs to apologize for having lung cancer.

C.W. Nevius' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Bay Area section and Fridays in East Bay Life. E-mail him at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.

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