More on lung cancer

On Monday I talked about the finger-pointing that goes along with lung cancer.  “Did s/he smoke?” is the first question that accompanies the news of a diagnosis.  A couple of days after Donna Summer died, her family released a statement saying that she didn’t smoke.  While that might have been partially connected to Summer’s idea that 9/11 caused her lung cancer, I hear a strong subtext of her not deserving her lung cancer, an effort to separate her from the smokers who die of lung cancer.

And of course, its opposite implication, that people who smoke deserve it.

I think this is an unintended consequence of the extremely effective awareness campaign linking smoking to lung cancer.  Thankfully, smoking rates are decreasing and yes, the incidence of lung cancer is following the same pattern.  But there are two truths that I want everyone to remember:

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  1. Lung cancer will not be eradicated by eliminating smoking.  As many as 24,000 American non-smokers die of lung cancer every year.
  2. Not every smoker gets lung cancer
I’d love it if the whole world quit smoking.  There’s nothing good about it.  But lung cancer, the disease itself, does not exist because of personal choice and is not a punishment for a modern lifestyle.  Yes, its rates have exploded since 1900 and can be reduced drastically, but the disease itself exists separately from known risk factors.  Lung cancer has been documented for hundreds of years.
I know that people use the disease as volleyball to forward their own agendas, often noble and right-minded agendas.  And it is true that there are significant known lifestyle risks. But we should not make the mistake of dismissing the disease entirely or considering a diagnosis any less tragic than breast, colon, bone, or any other cancer.
I also know that it goes beyond the blame game.  We all want to know how we can prevent a horrible disease with low survival rates like lung cancer.  Cancer is, undoubtedly, a bogeyman of a disease; one that exists to some degree outside of our control.  And that, my friends, is a scary truth.  Truth.
We can reduce our risk factors, we can improve our odds, but we can’t eliminate our risk altogether.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of cancer, I highly recommend The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.