Pearl Ribbon: The War on (Some) Cancer


Published: November 13, 2008

In fall of 2005 my dance teacher, friend and mentor, Darlene Wilson, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had never smoked. Darlene had just purchased a dance studio in Newburgh, NY after working as the Associative Choreographer for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Spamalot.” She was 43 years old. On March 2, 2007, a Broadway light went out when Darlene passed after her heroic battle.

Lung cancer sufferers sometimes face apathy and even antipathy from loved ones and society at large. (Charles Fox/MCT)

In one week, lung cancer will kill almost as many people as breast cancer will in an entire month. Support for breast cancer research has become synonymous with support for women, and yet in a year, lung cancer will kill nearly twice as many women as breast cancer. It will kill more people than colon, breast, prostate, liver, kidney and melanoma cancers combined. It accounts for about one in three cancer deaths every year and kills 439 people each day.

October was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. If you had eyes and ears, you probably noticed this. Last month, our campus was plastered with pink ribbons and busy with bake sales and sweatshirt sales. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that this month is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Most people don’t. I wouldn’t expect quite as much activity; maybe we’ll see some posters urging us to quit smoking: “Do you or your friends have a smoking problem? We can help.” Really, though, I doubt we’ll see much.

Since President Nixon declared a War on Cancer in 1971, huge efforts have been made to raise awareness and encourage vigilance so that cancer can be diagnosed at an early and treatable phase. Because of this, the survival rates of many cancers have gone up. The five-year survival rate of breast cancer, for example, has gone up from 75 percent to 87 percent. Other cancers have seen huge improvements in survival rates as well: the five-year survival rate of prostate cancer has gone up from 67 percent to 99 percent. Lung cancer’s five-year survival rate, however, has gone up only two points from 13 percent to 15 percent.

In 2007 the National Cancer Institute had a budget of $4.8 billion to spend on research and education. The NCI is free to distribute this money as it sees fit. Lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., received a measly 5 percent of the NCI’s budget. Breast cancer received the most funding. Both the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which spent $2.07 billion and $201 million on breast cancer respectively, spent $0 on lung cancer in 2007.

What accounts for these outrageous statistics? Of course we should keep fighting breast cancer, but why is the cancer with one of the highest survival rates our priority? Why is it that lung cancer receives little funding or attention from the government or the public when it is obviously such a devastating disease?

Maybe it’s our own fault. When you hear that someone has been diagnosed with lung cancer, what is the first thing you want to ask? You probably wonder immediately if that person smokes. If it’s someone you know, you might wonder if they smoked before you met. Maybe you feel guilty after this, but you probably still feel suspicious of or even angry with your loved one. Everybody makes poor choices, but no one deserves cancer. Certainly no cancer victim deserves anger or suspicion.

Furthermore, it is incorrect to assume that a lung cancer victim must have been a smoker at one point. Enough non-smokers have this disease and die from it to demonstrate that it cannot be seen as strictly self-inflicted. And if the victim was a smoker, that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t deserve our compassion and support. Lung cancer wrongly has a stigma as a self-inflicted disease. The common attitude seems to be that lung cancer victims brought it upon themselves and that the only way to eradicate the disease is to eliminate smoking completely, which will never happen. This makes for a rather cynical outlook.

Here are some facts. Twenty percent of women with lung cancer have never smoked, and 15 percent of all diagnosed have never smoked. This means that in 2007 in America, 24,059 people who never smoked died from lung cancer. Forty-five percent of people diagnosed were former smokers, many of whom quit decades ago. Most literature says that the sooner you quit, the less likely you are to suffer from smoking-related diseases. Only 35 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer are current smokers. What if your aunt, who followed medical advice and quit smoking in her mid-20s, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer decades later? Should she be punished with public judgment and little federal support, even though she realized her mistake and quit smoking when she was young?

The fact is that lung cancer kills more than any other cancer. So yes, I hope you walked for breast cancer and wore that pink bracelet. But please, this month, remember the 160,390 who died from lung cancer in 2007, one of whom was my 45-year-old dance teacher, Darlene Wilson. Remember the ones who smoked as well as the ones who did not, because they all suffered equally. And then fight to raise that despicable five-year survival rate from 15 percent to 87 percent. Lung cancer has been unfairly stigmatized as a self-inflicted disease that does not deserve federal funding or public support. It’s time to change that.

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