Guest Blog: "Dear Lung Cancer Patient Who Didn't Smoke"

Guest Blog: “Dear Lung Cancer Patient Who Didn’t Smoke”

Lisa & K, Oahu, December 2014

Lisa & K, Oahu, December 2014

Last December, my family took a trip to Hawaii. On a whim, I messaged a woman I barely knew, Karen “K” Latzka, a fellow lung cancer advocate who’d recently friended me on Facebook and regularly posted stunning pictures from her hikes near her home on Oahu. I thought perhaps we could meet for a cup of coffee. Instead she showered my family with some serious Aloha spirit, hosting my family and I on two beautiful hikes. The hikes were gorgeous, but the real gift was getting to know K, an experienced LC advocate and one of the warmest, loveliest people you could ever hope to meet.

Today, K posted a comment on Janet Freeman-Daily’s blog which I found really touching. In the LC world, most of the advocates I’ve come across have been never-smokers like myself. Although we’re in the minority of those diagnosed with LC, we compose the majority of LC bloggers and survivors featured in LC-related press. I understand that never-smokers can really help dismantle the stigma. To me, it’s sort of like how the world first needed to see Ryan White in order to overcome discrimination against AIDS patients in general. Patients who break stereotypes can shift the tide for the entire community (it’s an important part of why I’m as public as I am, why I welcome the question “Did you smoke?“). However, there is a danger that too much focus on smoking creates a painful divide in the LC community, pushing those with a smoking history further into shame and silence.

I’m glad to report that there are a few newer bloggers on the LC scene; Anita and Denise – bold women who do have a smoking history and are adding their voices to the choir. I welcome them! And since K doesn’t have a blog, I have her permission to share her wonderful letter “Dear Lung Cancer Patient Who Didn’t Smoke” with you below:

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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