In February of 2014, I wrote a blog post titled “Dear lung cancer patient who smoked.” Today that post received a comment from my friend and fellow lung cancer patient advocate K ‘Karen’ Latzka. Her insight deserves a blog post of its own. Reposted with author’s permission.
Dear lung cancer patient who didn’t smoke,
I was a pre-teen when my older sister invited me to smoke a cigarette with her. I worshiped her, and was excited she included me. Smoking united us. By sixteen, I had a full-blown addiction that I couldn’t break. But the day before my dad’s birthday, when I was 35 years old, I smoked my last cigarette.
For a decade, people celebrated this accomplishment with me. Relatives, friends and strangers asked me for tips to help them quit. More important, I forgave myself for poisoning my body for so long and committed to a healthy lifestyle.
At age 46, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Since that day, every time someone hears of my diagnosis for the first time, they ask “Did you smoke?” and, unlike my never-smoker brothers and sisters, I respond yes. Yes, but I quit a decade ago. Yes, but I know lots of people with lung cancer who never smoked. Yes, but I don’t deserve to die!
I remind myself that the question usually is not intended to judge me, but rather the inquisitor is gauging their own risk. Smokers and ex-smokers usually follow-up with questions about my smoking history, perhaps hoping my history was worse than theirs. Never-smokers usually follow-up with questions about a loved-one’s smoking history, or about second-hand smoke. I patiently respond with the things I know, followed by “anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.” And in the end, many walk away still thinking that I deserve what I got, most without showing a bit of compassion. And I forgive myself once again, and tuck away the guilt and shame until the next round.
It’s exhausting. It’s hard enough to fight the guilt and shame we put ourselves through after diagnosis, but to be reminded of it again and again by strangers, while we’re literally fighting for our lives is something most of us don’t have the will or the strength to tolerate. Which is why, when I look at my ever-expanding list of lung cancer friends who are active advocates like me, I don’t see many who have a smoking history.
So you advocate for all of us. The rise in lung cancer among never-smokers has caused an explosion in lung cancer research (relatively speaking). We’re finally seeing this research extend the lives of lung cancer patients! And these patients are actively advocating for more research funding, better education, and better screening methods.
As for this former-smoker, I will continue to fight lung cancer stigma by your side, and to do everything in my power to improve survival outcomes, no matter how exhausting it is.
With much love,
A lung cancer patient who smoked
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This is so beautifully stated. I also have a history of tobacco addiction in my past, accumulating a 7 pack year history over a decade. Like you, I’ve encountered rudeness and lack of compassion. I don’t know what it will take to change that in society at large, but I hope we can take the first step within our own community by learning to cast aside blame, and show kindness to everyone with lung cancer regardless of smoking history.
Janet, thank you so much for posting this.
Excellent post, Karen! I smoked like a fiend for way too many years. Watched my dad die of lung cancer when I was in my 20’s and he was in his 40’s … but that didn’t make me stop. One day, I just did. And was and am so proud that I did. When I was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years later, I myself thought the same as most people do who learn I used to smoke, “well, you deserved it. You knew what you were doing.” (It is very difficult to understand the addiction to cigarettes if a person hasn’t faced that addiction.)
Deserve it or not, I am a HUGE advocate for more funding, more awareness, and more understanding.
(As an aside, I don’t honestly think I or anyone else deserves to have cancer.)