Can we erase lung cancer stigma without mentioning “smoking”?

Some people have indicated my previous post (Dear lung cancer patient who smoked) reinforces a division within the lung cancer community (those who smoked versus those who didn’t).  That wasn’t my intention.  In fact, it was a division I was trying to heal. If I offended anyone, I apologize.

Like any group of people, those of us in the lung cancer community are individuals.  We differ in many ways:  age, physical fitness, financial status, geographic location, family relationships, gender, sexual orientation, smoking history, nutritional choices, weight, desire for privacy.  Our close personal experience with lung cancer is the only thing we all have in common.

Lung cancer patients and advocates talk about the stigma of lung cancer (which is largely associated with smoking) because we and others we know have experienced it. It is real. If we don’t talk about the stigma, who else will?

One approach to erasing the stigma is to show the world the diversity among lung cancer patients. Somehow we need to show the public that lung cancer patients don’t fit one mold.  To do this, we have to reveal our differences. The perception of HIV patients changed in part because patients with different personal characteristics spoke out and showed the world the diversity among HIV patients.

The fact that we talk about our differences doesn’t imply any judgment or preferred categories among us, although some people will always attempt to pigeonhole people in that manner.  We can acknowledge our differences and still accept each other.  Attempting to show the diversity within the lung cancer community in no way implies any judgment that some personal characteristics or habits are “better” than others. But somehow, no matter how carefully phrased, discussions about stigma that involve the word “smoking” seem to make some people feel even more stigmatized.

If you have ideas how we can demonstrate the diversity within the lung cancer community without mentioning the word “smoking,” I’d love to hear them.  Please share them in the comments section here, in our upcoming February 13 #LCSM tweetchat, or in an email to me at jfreeman.wa at

Dear lung cancer patient who smoked

Dear lung cancer patient who smoked:

Please forgive yourself.  No one deserves to die from lung cancer. No one.

We have all done things that could impact our health. Do heart patients deserve to die because one of their habits might have contributed to a heart attack? Do I deserve to die because I used high doses of sugar and caffeine (M&Ms and regular Coca-Cola) to get through late night study sessions in college?

Most people who took up smoking did so when they were teenagers. It looked cool. It looked grown up. Others of us made different not-so-healthy choices at that age. Yes, it’s healthier not to smoke. But it’s not a sin that warrants the death penalty.

You had some help forming your smoking habit. The tobacco and entertainment industries made smoking look “cool” and “mature” through TV, advertising, billboards and movies, especially during the 50s and 60s. Tobacco companies upped the ante over the years by adding nicotine and other chemicals to their products that ensured their customer base got addicted quickly and stayed addicted.

Rather than asking whether you deserve to die, perhaps you should try asking who or what you have to live for.


A lung cancer patient who never smoked