In remembrance: Lisa Smirl

An important part of my journey has been the opportunity to connect with other individuals (and sometimes, their family members) who are battling cancer. These relationships have enriched my life in so many ways. However, as many of us are dealing with a terminal illness, heartbreak is sometimes unavoidable.

Dr. Lisa Smirl was the first of several of my friends from INSPIRE to write a guest post in November. What she chose to share was incredibly poignant and touching. I desperately wanted to believe that this bright young woman had many years ahead of her. Sadly, she passed away on February 21, 2013.

I would like to share a tribute to Lisa from the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy. In addition, I am reposting her blog. Rest in peace, Lisa.

“It is with great sadness the Centre announces the death of Dr Lisa Smirl who died on 21st February 2013 after a long and brave fight against cancer. Lisa was a Teaching Fellow at the CISD from 2005 until 2009 when she joined the University of Sussex as a Lecturer in International Relations. Her research on the spatial practices and culture of global governance was truly innovatory and marked the beginnings of a highly promising academic career. Lisa’s thoughtfulness, diligence and unrivalled enthusiasm for her colleagues and students lit up any gathering of which she was part. No-one who worked with her will ever forget how life-affirming it was to be in her company. For her to lose her life at such a young age is a devastating loss, eased a little only by the memory of what a pleasure and honour it was to have known her.”

bio-pic“I’m a 37 year old woman, married, no children (but two very spoiled cats!). I live in the UK but am Canadian. Was diagnosed November 2011 with Stage IV adenocarcinoma with extensive mets to the bones, brain and liver. I was an Assistant Professor in International Relations at a university in the UK and became alerted to the ‘problem’ initially in Fall/Winter 2010-11 through having shortness of breath/ wheezing/cough which was wrongly diagnosed as asthma. I blamed the cat, had the carpets cleaned and went on with my regular routine of biking to work, doing ashtanga yoga, hiking on weekends and working too hard.

Over the course of that Spring (2011), I also was referred to a physiotherapist for shoulder and arm pain. In June, I started experiencing what are called ‘visual migraines’ – where your vision fractures and shimmers and swirls for about half an hour – and was losing the ability to read text. I was also experiencing photo-phobia – where bright lights hurt your eyes. By September, I had become so sick that I had to go off work, having been diagnosed with ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ and having been put on anti-depressants. Still, despite my pleas, and a dramatic weight loss, none of my doctors (and I saw three different family practitioners) would consider my symptoms in conjunction with one another – insisting that they were all common, unrelated problems (migraines, asthma, depression, back pain).When in November, I completely misread my asthma prescription and took 10 times the recommended amount only to have it make no difference to my violent cough, the doctor finally sent me for a routine X-ray. I was called back within hours. Cancer. And so it begins….

There are three points that I would like to make:

1. That it is a sneaky, cruel, insidious disease. Looking back, it was clear that I was getting sicker and sicker and had been for about 14 months prior to my diagnosis. But at the time, it is so easy to just dismiss a cough, a wheeze, feeling a little tired and to continue with your regular routine. Because it happens so slowly, it is easy to miss the weight loss, the lack of appetite, or the excuses that you start to make for taking the elevator instead of the stairs.

2. I can’t prove it, and this is just my opinion, but I have no doubt in my own mind that my misdiagnosis was in large part due to the fact that I was a middle aged female and that my male doctors were preconceived towards a psychological rather than a physiological diagnosis. It is so easy to say that someone’s symptoms are ‘anxiety’ related if they are a little bit complicated, unclear or unusual. Don’t repeat my mistakes. You know when something is wrong. Find another doctor that you connect with and who takes your concerns seriously. Get referrals. Get tested. Refuse to be dismissed.

3. The elephant in the room: smoking. I didn’t do it a lot but I did do it: socially, at parties, doing research interviews if it made my interviewees feel more comfortable. I think that I thought that because I only did it a little, or because I was healthy in other areas of my life – that it wouldn’t matter. And although my doctors insist that the amount that I smoked was incidental to my diagnosis, I tend to disagree. Cancer acts very differently in different people and while some of us can get away with smoking a pack a day and live until we’re ninety, I think that for some of us, all it takes to contract LC is a couple of cigs a week.What is also notable – but hardly surprising – about the general discourse is how there is still an implicit emphasis on non-smokers being more deserving of a cure. (This could be my own insecurity, but every-time I come up negative for a new test that is more common in never smokers (EGFR, ALK), I feel that somehow I have failed at my cancer; that it’s because I am less deserving of a cure.) So, on top of all the other bullsh*t that cancer throws at you, LC has the added sweeteners of blame and guilt. This in turn, acts as a silencer for those of us, who, had we not smoked, might feel more entitled to have a voice in the debate. Instead of speaking up – screaming (or wheezing ☺) for a cure for this woefully underfunded disease – and taking the tobacco companies and other environmental polluters to task for their actions, we focus on our own guilt and quietly accept our ‘punishment’.

As a way of forcing myself beyond my guilt (and having been inspired by Linnea’s amazing blog!) I have started chronicling my own experiences here:

I would be so honoured if you would join the conversation. xxx”

13 responses to “In remembrance: Lisa Smirl

  1. To inspire the inspired is a testament to you Linnea. Sounds like the world lost an amazing woman way too soon.

  2. This story and Lisa’s misdiagnosis makes me want to scream! So sorry Linnea.


  3. Thank you so much for sharing this post today of all days. SOmetimes it feels like magic happens on this cancer journey of ours. Lisa is mine today. Learning about her journey this morning and sharing in it even tho she is travelling on a different plane now, grounds me and reminds me of our human ness – all of us. And that when I lie in bed feeling exhausted from the next side effect or symptom of disease or treatment, posts such as this ground me and remind me that what ever of my life I have lef, I want to share it with people like you all – that I have met through our cancer journey, that have flowered into this beautiful place of love. Thank you all so much xxxxxxx Sara xxxxxxxx

  4. So sad to hear about Lisa. I absolutely remember her guest post — I just loved her smile and felt the humanness in her words. Thank you for letting us know and sympathy to you, Linnea, and for all those who knew Lisa. Very hard to grasp it all.

  5. Thank you for this. My condolences to you and to all of us. What a wonderful beautiful person we all have lost

  6. Linnea, thanks for sharing her writing and the news of her demise. Her loss is a real tragedy. I appreciated her words about smoking and lung cancer event hough I am one of the “lucky” non-smokers to have it. They are insightful and unfortunately, true.

  7. A very touching post. The misdiagnosed shoulder and arm pain sounds very familiar. My most sincere condolences to you and all who knew her.

  8. Makes my stomach hurt. Since she guest blogged for you, I would check into her blog now and then. But there was nothing after November. Not a good sign. Very sad, beautiful, young, unfair. That’s why when you or Kimmywink or any number of bloggers don’t post, I worry, I pray.

  9. i remember reading her post. i dont have anything smart to say about her passing, just that i hope her family is ok and i hope she is too. god bless her and her family

  10. This makes me so sad and angry. Another individual who added such greatness to our world, ripped from us too soon by this bastard of a disease. I followed her blog until she stopped posting – I thought perhaps blogging didn’t turn out to be her thing (I hoped, anyway).

    Thanks for introducing her to us, and sharing this news. You’re absolutely right – the gifts our friendships bring come with the hefty price of heartbreak. But I wouldn’t trade them for the world. If there is an afterlife, imagine the amazing parties we will have with all our friends and loved ones!

    xxoo, Jazz

  11. Thank you all for your lovely comments. I wish I had know Lisa better; she was brave, brilliant and taken far too soon. My heart goes out to her friends and family.


  12. I am so heartbroken to read about Lisa’s death. Lisa and I were both PhD students in the same faculty, and I always enjoyed her sense of humor, her smile, and her warmth during a period that was not really that pleasant for me. I remember seeing her in the tea room at the UL, and exchanging news about our colleagues and the pains of fieldwork. I followed her blog since she began writing about her experiences with cancer, and also noticed that she stopped writing in November. She has been on my mind almost everyday since.

    I am not convinced that Lisa is that far away from us. I think every time we let go of fear and carry on, we are leaving. Some, like Lisa, just do it with more grace than others.


    • Shirin, I am so sorry. Every thing I know and have heard about Lisa indicates that she was a phenomenal person and well loved. Her passing is tragic. May she live on in your heart.


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