Jump to content

Lung Cancer Patients Deserve Help, Not Blame


Recommended Posts

Posted on Tue, Aug. 23, 2005

Lung cancer patients deserve help, not blame

By Sue Hutchison

Mercury News

Over the past two weeks, I must have had a dozen conversations with people who are horrified by the news that Dana Reeve, wife of late actor and ``Superman'' Christopher Reeve, has been diagnosed with lung cancer.

The tone goes something like this: It's not just that she's already been through hell, nursing her paralyzed husband until his death last year, but Mrs. Superman doesn't even smoke! How could this happen to an innocent victim?

Of course, no one ever says ``innocent victim.'' But it's implied. And when Peter Jennings died of lung cancer this month, all the chatter about his chain-smoking seemed to suggest that one of the most elegant and admired of newsmen was not an ``innocent'' victim. Never mind that he'd kicked the habit many years ago.

A chilling effect

Doctors and health advocates who treat lung cancer will tell you that this blame-the-victim attitude is partly responsible for why there aren't better treatments for the disease, the most lethal of all cancers. They will tell you that the stigma is part of the reason we don't have a good screening test -- the CT scan is not considered effective for most patients. There's no ``find the cure'' fundraising juggernaut behind lung cancer research as there is for breast cancer.

Margo Sidener, executive director of the American Lung Association chapter in San Jose, said it's unlikely that her organization could even get a grant to work with lung cancer patients: ``The feeling seems to be, `I'd much rather give money to innocent little children who have asthma.' '' There's the I-word again.

Sidener said that when she does hear from lung cancer patients who have been told they have only a few months to live, most are quick to berate themselves for smoking. ``It's as though they just don't expect compassion,'' she explained.

Dr. Heather Wakelee, an instructor at Stanford University Medical School who specializes in treating lung cancer, agreed that it's common for her patients to condemn themselves. ``I've had people tell me, `I don't deserve to be treated,' '' she said. ``And patients who are younger, who may never have smoked, say they don't get the sympathy they would expect because of the stigma.''

We've done a good job in recent decades of vilifying smoking and the tobacco companies, but in the process we've vilified smokers. Of the almost 170,000 diagnoses of lung cancer each year, 85 percent are smokers or former smokers. The disease is on the rise among women, and it kills more people than breast, ovarian, colon and prostate cancers combined.

They're our loved ones

So, let's think about the smokers we know. Chances are everyone has a favorite aunt or English teacher or wacky college friend or even a spouse who just can't kick that pack-a-day habit. They're people who make us laugh and make us think and may have even changed our lives. Do they deserve to be punished for having a powerful addiction despite all their wonderful qualities? Do they deserve to die for it?

It's a great national victory that smoking is finally on the wane, but we need more research to help those who can't break free of the spell of the Marlboro man. Meanwhile, there's evidence of an increase in lung cancer cases among young women who don't smoke. Wakelee said she's seen 10 such patients in the past two years at her Stanford practice.

Maybe the fallen anchorman and Mrs. Superman will inspire a new lung cancer treatment campaign that will call for research to benefit patients instead of passing judgment on them and leaving them to die, apologizing.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Restore formatting

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.