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Facing Stigma with a Lung Cancer Diagnosis

Focus Your Energy on Getting Better

As a long-time survivor of lung cancer, one of the biggest struggles I faced with my diagnosis was the stigma.

I remember telling a coworker about my cancer, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Did you smoke?” The immediate placement of blame was so stunning it took me a moment to answer. As a matter of fact, I had smoked, but I quit decades earlier - 26 years to be exact. But why should that matter? Am I more deserving of this disease because of it? Is anyone? I was dealing with a cancer diagnosis and expected a kind word, and instead people were asking me if it was my fault. Now I feel like part of the reason I’m still here is to help spread the word that lung cancer patients can and must allow themselves to come out from under the condemnation, guilt and misplaced blame too often associated with a lung cancer diagnosis.

In September 2005, I was in excellent health, aside from a tender, swollen gland in my neck. At my annual physical I asked my doctor about it, but he couldn’t find anything else wrong with me. The next time it flared up, it had already been there for seven months, so I thought I should do something about it.

One scan showed possible pneumonia, and a second scan indicated it might be a neoplasm in my right lung. Nothing to be alarmed about. But my doctor sent me to a pulmonologist just in case. She also believed it was likely something minor and offered to “poke around” to rule out cancer. She performed a bronchoscopy and a biopsy. The results came back Stage IB non-small cell adenocarcinoma of the lung, specifically a rare subtype called bronchioloalveolar carcinoma (BAC).

It was early-stage. The tumor was 5 centimeters across, and they were able to get it all by removing two-thirds of my right lung. Surgery was followed by chemotherapy to reduce my risk of recurrence. I originally started with two drugs, but I had a delayed allergic reaction. Exactly four days after every chemo injection, I had what I can only describe as severe internal itching. Eventually it became so bad I had to switch to two different drugs.

After chemo was over, I found out that this treatment was no longer considered necessary.

I regretted subjecting myself to it. When you have a seemingly narrow window of treatment options, you need to make sure you have a solid understanding of them when you’re discussing them with your doctor. It’s important to do your research and be your own best advocate because you’re ultimately responsible for your health. However, it can be hard to find information and difficult to tell what’s reliable. Get connected with a lung cancer organization where you can find resources and other survivors because you can never have too much support.

Find a group specifically for people with lung cancer; it helps immensely to know you’re not alone and to have others reaffirm that you don’t deserve to be judged for your diagnosis. I finally understood this, and with acceptance came relief. There are already enough emotions to deal with, and you should be focusing all of your energy on getting better.

Now, I’m cancer-free and feel excellent. I stay active and busy organizing charity 5K runs. And advocacy has become a big part of my life. People need to know that when it comes to lung cancer, anyone can get it and no one deserves it.

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