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Little Sympathy for Ex-Smokers

Reaction: Partly because of the public's perception that smokers take a foolish risk, lung cancer gets less attention--and funding.

March 26, 2001|TINKER READY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even as scientists investigate the possibility of a gender gap in lung cancer occurrence, health care advocates, cancer patients and their family members are trying to change attitudes about the disease.

It is unfair, they say, to dismiss lung cancer patients as fools who willingly play Russian roulette with their health. Nicotine is a powerful drug, most smokers get hooked as teenagers and some of them simply cannot quit, they say.

For women, the general lack of sympathy for lung cancer patients cuts even deeper when cast against the well-publicized breast cancer awareness campaigns complete with footraces, pink ribbons and celebrity spokeswomen.

"If you stop the average woman on the street and ask her what is the most common women's cancer, she'll say breast cancer," said Nadine Jelsing, director of the 5-year-old Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support and Education. "There is a higher incidence of breast cancer, but more women die of lung cancer."

Those numbers played out this way in 1996: 184,000 women developed breast cancer; 78,000 women developed lung cancer. About 43,000 breast cancer patients succumbed to their disease, compared with 60,000 lung cancer patients.

And though dollars-to-deaths might not be the best way to measure the government's commitment to a certain disease, lung cancer advocates point out that the National Cancer Institute budget for breast cancer is more than twice that for lung cancer.

So, every year, a large group of renegade runners crash the Revlon Run/Walk for Women's Cancers in New York City. The group is organized each year by Susane Levine, who lost her 28-year-old daughter Deena Soloway to lung cancer three years ago. A breast cancer survivor herself, Levine said she was angry when she learned that the proceeds of the event only support research into breast, cervical and ovarian cancers.

"More women die of lung cancer than all three of those cancers put together," Levine said. "I don't know if they don't include it because it is not a pretty disease. I don't really know."

So the runners on Deena's Team pay the official entry fee but send the money they raise to the Alliance for Lung Cancer.

"We're not trying to take money away from breast cancer," Jelsing said. "We just want to be recognized."

Some of the lack of sympathy toward lung cancer patients can rub off on lung cancer researchers.

"There is a lot of bias because of the fact it is considered self-inflicted," said cell biologist Jill Siegfried of the University of Pittsburgh.

But she doesn't buy the argument that smokers, knowing the risks, get what they deserve.

"Yes, they make a choice, but they make that choice at a very early age when they are not old enough to understand what the risks are," she said. "These are problems that can't be solved by just saying, 'Just say no to smoking.' "

Anita Johnston, a 70-year-old retired interior designer from Oyster Bay on Long Island, said the only thing that prompted her to quit smoking was a diagnosis of lung cancer 10 years ago. "I had smoked since I was 14," she said. "I had tried I don't know how many times. I went for acupuncture. I went to a hypnotist. I went to a smoking cessation clinic. Nothing worked for me. It was my coping mechanism, and I was stressed."

So, though breast cancer patients spurn the label "victim" in favor of "survivor," lung cancer patients see themselves as victims of tobacco addiction. And the term "survivor" hardly fits. About 85% of the women who develop breast cancer survive; about 85% of the people who develop lung cancer do not.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Lung Cancer Death Rates

Although fewer men are dying of lung and bronchus cancer than in years past, the mortality rate for women is growing.

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The Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support and Education can be reached at P.O. Box 849, Vancouver, WA 98666; (800) 298-2436; and http://www.alcase.org.

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