My father smoked heavily for decades. Six years before his death, he decided to stop, but it was too late. The lungs have no nerve endings inside, so tumors can grow undetected. There they remain painless until symptoms like a persistent cough or breathlessness present.
In my father's case, tumors spread to his shoulders, causing him intense pain. Eventually, a doctor pinpointed the cause of his discomfort. Less than six months later, he died at the age of 59.
I find it both alarming and offensive that no more funding goes toward lung cancer research now than when my father died in 1977, despite the fact that lung cancer kills more people than breast, prostate, colon, liver, kidney and melanoma cancers combined.
Health officials know that at least 164,000 new diagnoses occur each year. The amount of funding for lung cancer research remains an abysmal $1,829 for each lung cancer death compared to more than $23,000 for breast cancer and $14,300 for prostate cancer. Early detection programs and successful treatments for those latter two cancers mean anyone having either of them stands a good chance of surviving. Only about 14 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer will overcome it.
When a dear friend of ours suffered from lung cancer last year, we were asked, "Did he smoke?" Apparently he did years ago, but hadn't for decades.
It bothered me to hear that question as if it were an accusation: somehow he had brought his disease on by willful carelessness. Despite the fact that lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in our country, the "blame the victim" mentality persists.
My father heard that attitude from health care professionals. When Dad complained of a horrible sore throat, one asked, "What do you want when you abused your body like that?" Those who ask the question of whether a lung cancer victim smoked subscribe to the myth that it is a smoker's disease, which it is not.
More than half of patients diagnosed with this type of cancer either never smoked or quit years earlier. People who never smoked account for between 15 percent and 20 percent of lung cancers. Of those 20,000 who never smoked and yet suffer from the disease, 80 percent are women. Some of these cases might be attributed to secondhand smoke. Researchers estimate 2,000 deaths result from that exposure each year.
But besides the effects of secondhand smoke, we have a large number of sufferers for which the cause remains elusive. And that number increases, especially among men and women in their 40s. More should be done to combat this disease. More aggressive screening is needed.
Perhaps, because there are no celebrity spokespersons for lung cancer, despite celebrity deaths from it like that of Dana Reeve, lung cancer is the poor step-child of cancers. People don't want to talk about it, but we must.
More money must be funneled to lung cancer research to stop the carnage. It is horrible to watch a loved one die of cancer, and made more painful when so little is being done to fight this particular one. No one -- smoker or non-smoker -- deserves to suffer from its ravages.
Obviously, funding for anything is made more difficult by our economic morass. But finding a cause and cure for lung cancer may save money in the end and stop families from suffering along with their suffering loved ones. It is too late for our friend.