Tag Archives: Stigma


Lungs are having a moment.

Yup. One fundamentally underappreciated organ. Not as romantic or picturesque as a heart. Not as hungry as as a stomach. Not as smart as a brain.

Lungs are one of those things we absolutely take for granted. Just breathe, y’all.

Except, it’s not that simple. Knee on the neck, stupid COVID, fucking fires.

Those boggy pieces of flesh are actually absolutely essential to our ongoing existence. You can go without food for 30-40 days. Water, three to four. Brain dead, well, with other life supports, for years. Heartbeat, 20 minutes. Breath? Three to six minutes before you suffer irreversible brain damage.

Our lungs are, unquestionably, one of our most essential organs. Arguably unattractive (I’ve held a resected lung in a lab) but oh so beautiful as far as function.

I would like to posit that 2020 is the year of the lung. Police brutality, a global pandemic, and the West Coast up in smoke.

We should not, cannot, ignore the organ that is in charge of respiration. Those of us with lung cancer understand this. Not just understand, our very existence is often predicated upon drawing a breath.

Of all our organs, it is our lungs that interface with and are most sensitive to our immediate environment. Therefore, logically, we should love our lungs.

And yet, even though lung cancer takes more lives than any other cancer annually, it is also the most underfunded when it comes to medical research.

Why? Is it the outdated stigma that only associates lung cancer with smoking? There is no question that smoking damages lung tissue, an established risk factor for lung cancer. However, it is the inflammation secondary to inhalation of smoke that is key. IE: damage to lung tissue. Viruses that attack the lungs (COVID) and wildfires can cause the same sort of damage.

Our lungs are the canary in the coal mine. And they should never, ever, be taken for granted. Just as our heart can’t stop beating, our lungs can’t stop breathing. And they are not discriminate. Whatever particulate is in our immediate environment will be inhaled.

Essentially, anyone who breathes is at risk for lung cancer. That is each and everyone of us.

2020 should be the year that we all stop taking the next breath as a given.

Love your lungs. Your very life depends upon it.

Just not a just world

There are two kinds of people. Those that believe life is fair (everything happens for a reason) and those who don’t (shit happens).

These differing viewpoints may seem like no big deal until you start thinking about the moral implications of belief in a just world. I suppose if everything is working out for you it’s a pretty convenient philosophy. However, if life has thrown you some major curves (such as a diagnosis of terminal cancer) than you probably don’t believe we all get what we deserve.

My own diagnosis of lung cancer left me completely gobsmacked. How on earth did a young, seemingly healthy woman who had never ever touched a cigarette (me) get lung cancer. And yes, I was struck by the unjustness of it all. I mean, why me?

Well, first of all, lung cancer in non and never smokers is nowhere near as uncommon as most people believe. Approximately 60-65% of newly diagnosed cases occur in former or never smokers.

Secondly, life is not fair.

However, most of us grew up believing in a just world, a well ordered place where sensible and good behavior was rewarded and risky or bad behavior duly punished. This viewpoint not only shaped our moral code, it lent us an invisible cloak of safety.

This philosopy is the very reason that those of us with lung cancer are consistently asked as to whether or not we smoked. The asker wants to be reassured that our lung cancer is the direct result of cause and effect. Of course they haven’t stopped to think about how this question will impact us. If the answer is yes, the implication is that we are the agent of our own misfortune. And if it is no, we are reminded once again of our extraordinarily bad luck.

Belief in a just world is the thinking behind the stigma associated with a diagnosis of lung cancer. Stigma is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’. In the case of lung cancer, our diagnosis is inextricably linked to shame and a blame the victim mentality.

Which makes us all incredibly sensitive to any suggestion that cancer, and our disease in particular, is almost entirely preventable. ‘Helpless to Prevent Cancer? Actually, Quite a Bit is in Your Control‘ reads the catchy title of a recent article from the New York Times. The author, a professor of pediatrics (and therefore, I think, not an expert on adult cancers) makes statements such as this: ‘… you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that smoking causes lung cancer…’ Or this ‘About 82 percent of women and 78 percent of men who got lung cancer might have prevented it through healthy behaviors.’ The author makes a stab at empathy with this observation: ‘You don’t want to get into situations where you feel as if people don’t deserve help because they didn’t try hard enough to stay healthy’. However, the word deserve and that bit about not trying hard enough harkens right back to shame, shame, shame.

The way in which disease is characterized matters. Talking about lifestyle changes that can optimize health is always a good thing, but it is important to remain sensitive to the language that is used.

Calamity of all sorts and cancer in particular is often beyond our control. Nobody deserves lung cancer, whether they smoked or not. But sometimes, shit just happens.