Clearing the air

When I tell people that I have lung cancer, I make no mention of whether or not I smoked.  Most people will ask me anyway.  I view this as an opportunity to educate:  nonsmokers can get lung cancer too.  But what if I had smoked?  Would there be an awkward silence after my affirmative response?  Would the air hum with an unspoken “you got what you deserved?”

This is but one of the reasons why you hear lung cancer referred to as the cancer with a stigma.

When regarding a person who is morbidly obese, it is likely not uncommon to assume that they have failed to regulate self control when it comes to food consumption (whether or not that is actually the case).  But how often does someone actually go up to them and ask, “did you eat too much?”  Such restraint is not observed when talking to those of us with lung cancer.  I feel compassion for everyone who shares my diagnosis, and I certainly don’t believe anyone deserves cancer.

My relationship with cigarettes is complicated.  My mother smoked. Probably while I was in utero, but certainly throughout my childhood.   I never liked it, and when I got to an age where I felt I could take a stand, I did my best to get her to quit.  She finally kicked the habit, but not until I was in my thirties.  Mom never got lung cancer, but I did.

It’s hard.  Hard not to feel sad and a little angry.  A new study indicates that children who grow up in a household with a smoker are twice as likely to get lung cancer; whether or not they ever smoke.  Click here to read the article.

Unfortunately my exposure to second hand smoke didn’t stop there.  From the age of sixteen until I was thirty, I waited tables in a variety of restaurants.  This was in the nineteen seventies and eighties, and anti-smoking laws were in the distant future. After a seven or eight hour long shift, I would come home and immediately shower, in an attempt to wash away the reek of cigarettes.

Yesterday, the Sunday New York Times had an article regarding the poorly enforced ban on smoking indoors.  Evidently in certain New York City clubs, patrons are ignoring the regulations against smoking and the management of these establishments is choosing to look the other way.

The online version of the article allows readers to express their views, and a large number of people joined in, myself included.  Click here to view the article;  and then check out the comments if you are interested.  Mine was the 200th comment and you can find it under HIGHLIGHTS as well.    The viewpoints are, as expected, quite polarized.  A lot of anger, and words such as entitled and selfish thrown around by members of both camps.   The Bill of Rights is rather loosely invoked and references to a “nanny” state are made.  Not a lot of sympathy is shown by either side for the other and some opinions are just downright cruel: “As for smoking generating higher medical costs, I am dubious.  Smokers die early rather than hanging around until they’re ninety…”

Tell you what.  I’m not one to judge as long as personal behavior is harmful to no one else.  But that’s the rub with smoking.  Unless you are really, truly, isolated in locale, your smoke is going to enter someone else’s airspace.

More than twenty years ago I made a sketch for a t-shirt that I wanted to get printed.  I hesitated, afraid that maybe it was offensive.  I no longer feel that way, and in fact one of my New Year’s resolutions is to put it into production and raise some funds for lung cancer research.  The message on the shirt will be this:


21 responses to “Clearing the air

  1. This is fantastic — love the t-shirt slogan.

    • Thanks AJ. I plan to get to work on them right away, perhaps through one of the online t-shirt companies. I would love to have the opportunity to raise some funding for research, as well as to get some messages out there.

  2. Well said Linnea! As an ex-smoker diagnosed with lung cancer at age 47, if I have any regrets it is that I smoked. I have also been diagnosed with heart disease – smoking makes one’s platelets stick together – and asthma. I am now one of those ex-smokers who will bug you…I feel I have earned that right.
    It is true that lung cancer patients have a stigma, breast cancer receives more research dollars, etc. I don’t think smokers “deserve” lung cancer, any more than the non-smokers who were exposed. Here’s to more research dollars!!! Linnea (NY)

    • Linnea, I hope I was able to make my point without offense. I don’t hate smokers (in fact I’ve loved quite a few, including my mom), just smoking. And we all have regrets. The important thing is to make as many good choices as we can, and to forgive ourselves for the poor ones. I also think it’s important for ex-smokers and smokers with lung cancer to share their status as well. In doing so, hopefully you can influence others (and particularly young people) to not smoke or to stop if they do. Thanks for your comment my linnea-friend. Linnea

  3. An offensive to save lives is good and your design is great, like the Smile t-shirts.

    Is not like we are putting our butts in the smokers faces.

    Today news from my native country: Argentina’s Elvis, musician Sandro, an early Latin American rocker, has died aged 64.
    His health had been poor since he underwent transplant surgery in November because of chronic lung disease.
    The musician put his illness down to a lifelong smoking habit.

    “I am to blame for the condition that I am in. I deserve it, I sought it out. I picked up this damn cigarette”.

  4. i thought the comment you left on the article on jezebel was spot on. it is not a choice for you to breathe, but it is a choice for someone to pick up a cigarette. i get rather indignant when someone tries to argue this point with me… as though their smoking habit is as necessary as the air i need to simply be alive. you know i’m always here to be your backup bulldog on these things ❤


  5. Pingback: LungBlog : A Breath Away From The Cure » Blog Archive » Clearing the air

  6. Interesting post. I have never smoked, but my mother did… she’s had 3 recurrences of lung cancer & is still here at age 83. But I’ve had bronchitis & have been asked “when did you stop smoking” after they looked at chest X-rays. Scary. I’ve traveled a lot to countries where smoking was rampant. Sat hours on smoke filled airplanes. In Eastern Europe I was on a bus and pulled my t-shirt up over my mouth and nose as the bus driver I sat behind seemed to smoke a pack in an hour. The person behind me asked if I was “sick”. I really don’t like hearing from smokers that get cancer, “what’s smoking got to do with it?” Sadly, a helluva lot. I know they find that opinion offensive, but… In my mother’s generation (being 83) they didn’t know better. I understand that. It was considered chic & even portrayed in a lot films… but now, it’s horrible to not know better. Younger generations know the impacts. I completely agree. As long as your choices don’t impact me, have at it. Unfortunately, that just can’t be said for smoking.

  7. Suzy, I also remember what it was like to fly to Europe on a smoking flight…hard to imagine now. Smoking status ends up being a rather sensitive subject, and I try to respect everyone’s feelings. However, I feel a little disenfranchised as a never smoker with lung cancer. Truth is, it’s a sensitive subject for me as well. Linnea

  8. I understand the sensitivity… and I respect everyone’s choices as well, and won’t judge those choices. Some things can’t be undone, but as the doctor’s oath is “do no harm”… I wish no harm from me to others or visa versa.

  9. Suzy, I am in complete agreement. I have often thought that “first do no harm” would make an excellent motto for us all. Linnea

  10. I so like your poster.

    It’s really tought not to be angry. My mother is also a never-smoker with lung cancer. BTW – she just started on PF 02341066 trial and although the first CT a week or so ago was overall positive, ever since we came back from our last visit she says it’s getting more difficult for her to breathe. Not sure if it means that the drug stopped working or what; at some point I start to worry if this month they gave us the wrong drug by mistake 🙂 Our next visit is next week…

    Regardless, nobody in our family has ever smoked – neither my mother’s parents nor my father, nobody… Not even cousins. But as many older people, for 15 years or so my mother worked in an engineering company where everyone around her smoked. This was in the 80s and early 90s. In the 90s anti-smoking guidelines just started to be introduced yet everyone in this small company ignored it. Since the owner smoked as well, my mother never dared to bring it up – she needed the job.

    Would my mother still have gotten lung cancer had she not worked for this company? Nobody can really say. But even if her own cancer had nothing to do with this, somebody else’s might. So while I am trying to respect everyone’s feelings, it’s really difficult not to be angry.

    By some strange co-incidence my father’s mother – no blood relation to my mother – died of lung cancer too. She was also a non-smoker, though having lived in communal apartments – i.e. apartments shared with other families – in the old Soviet Union for the most of her life and in Israel for the last decade, the probability is very high she was exposed to second hand smoke. My father doesn’t remember if her neighbors smoked.
    BTW – my father told me that when he was 15 or younger, he tried a cigarette. Once. His father saw it, took it away and punished him. My father has never smoked again.

    “first do no harm” is a great motto.

    • Diora–that is great that your mom had a positive CT. Hopefully the breathlessness has another reason–there can be many. I am like the canary in the coal mine that way now. Whether it is a respiratory infection or anxiousness, I feel it quickly in my ability to breathe. Anyway, we will think positive thoughts until her next visit. Linnea

      • Linnea – thank you for your words, I do need the hope.

        BTW – I read your reply on NY Times article. It was brilliant.

  11. Linnea!

    Love the T-Shirt!!! Offensive? Who cares….as long as it makes someone think!

    I’ll be your first customer!

  12. Thank you Tracy! I will post a link on here as soon as they are up and running. Linnea

  13. I’m revisiting this post. I read so many battling LC saying that only 10% of smokers get cancer & it’s not related. No way. No how. Yet, 90% of that 10% ARE smokers. The remaining 10%? Secondhand smoke and things like asbestos exposure. There are correlations with an added genetic predisposition among other factors.

    I just read a smoker on another site write, “Just as we or I would have loved to have blown smoke in their face when I was smoking and tell them to go bother someone else with their no smoking preaching ( and I call them stupid)”.

    How can impacting one’s own as well as other’s health be stupid? And like you Linnea, my mom smoked & I love her dearly. Hated that she did that, but I still love her. Smokers need to realize it’s about that issue, not their totality as a person.

  14. *one’s own health… sorry, no proofreading

  15. I’ve never understood the righteousness and anger coming from smokers and I have to believe that it is just overcompensation for their own feelings of anxiety and perhaps guilt.

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