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Today’s column instantly brought back memories of my late sister, Lilian, a nonsmoker who nonetheless died of lung cancer shortly before her 58th birthday in England in 1988. She was lying in bed unconscious by the time I arrived, after flying via TWA from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to Gatwick Airport in southern England. I had always admired her for being pretty but on this occasion her face was distorted, as though she was trying to escape from her skin, and she was taking raspy breaths. She never did regain consciousness before she died hours later.
In 2009 I memorialized her death in a blog, illustrated with photos of happier times, and posted on November 11th, the date that she died, titled:
Below I’ve pasted Bill McClellan’s on-line column, which in the print version is titled “Lung cancer doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” which I think is a better title so I’ve used it for this blog.
One thing that struck me in McClellan’s column below is this paragraph:
“There is no behavioral link to breast cancer, no one blaming the patients, no one asking if they were smokers.”
In 1987 I read a ground-breaking paper by A. Judson Wells, Ph.D., which estimated non-smoking deaths due to secondhand smoke exposure, and included breast cancer deaths among them.
This was at a time when any such association between secondhand smoke and breast cancer was generally dismissed by the medical community. I believe that association has now been recognized.
P.S. After posting this I received the following e-mail from a former St. Louis resident, good friend, and mogasp supporter. He was kind enough to allow me to post it without attribution:
“Thanks for forwarding Bill’s column with your commentary.
We had a very good friend who never smoked and her husband was a very heavy smoker. She eventually died of lung cancer and it devastated my wife who had become very fond of this woman. We were unable to maintain contact with her husband (the couple had moved to Quebec, Canada).
Your sister in Brighton brought back memories.
In 1936 my older sister was put into a boarding school in Brighton for a year since public schools in Germany were closed to Jews. I followed to the UK a year later (9/37) and we both ended up in Bournemouth (of course at two different boarding schools).
On Thursday, 4/16, we celebrate 76 years since we landed in New York.
Had I told you before that the community to which we’ve retired is now smoke free within 25 feet of any window or doorway of any community building?
Life is good out here in the great Northwest.”
What’s truly an amazing coincidence is that my family moved from East London to Bournemouth shortly before WWII on the advice of a family doctor. He said my sister, who had severe bronchitis, would not survive if we remained in London’s dirty air, polluted from numerous homes heated by inefficient coal fires. He recommended Bournemouth, a seaside town in the middle of the south coast, for the “healthy ozone” from its many pine trees.
Another reason we might not have survived was this. When my family visited London shortly after the end of the war, half of Sigdon Rd. in East London where we had lived had been destroyed by a V2 rocket!
Those with lung cancer find themselves fighting on two fronts
13 hours ago • By Bill McClellan
Larry Less woke up one morning five years ago with the taste of blood in his mouth. He was 61 and lived alone. He thought about driving himself to the emergency room and then decided to call an ambulance.
Two days later, he woke up in a hospital. A doctor told him he had had a heart attack. Also, he had terminal lung cancer. He was my oldest friend. I wrote about visiting him before his death. He was a skeletal figure and he still smoked. Why quit?
Shortly after Larry’s death, Beth Radinsky began having a pain in her hip. She was 65. People that age get random pains. She understood that. She was a physical therapist. Later, she had chest pains and went through a battery of tests. Lung cancer. She had never smoked.
By the time her cancer was diagnosed, it had spread. The pain in her hip? Cancer had eaten up the hip bone. She died in September of 2013.
Larry and Beth represent two sizable minorities among people diagnosed with lung cancer. Twenty one percent are smokers. Eighteen percent never smoked. The rest are former smokers, many of whom have been off cigarettes for years, even decades.
Still, the link between smoking and lung cancer has stuck lung cancer patients with a stigma that other cancer patients don’t have to deal with.
Cheryl Lamprecht was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005. She had never smoked. She went to the Siteman Cancer Center to get information about support groups. There were none.
Later, she met another lung cancer patient who had also unsuccessfully looked for a support group. Myrtle Chidester was a former smoker. She had been off cigarettes for 20 years when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005.
The two women became their own support group. Then they founded an actual support group in 2009. They called it Lung Cancer Alliance. It is now called Lung Cancer Connection. They wanted to do more than support other patients. They wanted to advocate for more research money. Lung cancer is one of the least-funded cancers despite the fact that it claims more lives than breast, prostate, colon, liver and kidney cancers combined.
Also, they wanted more emphasis on early detection. One reason it is so deadly is the low rate of early detection.
Cheryl was fortunate in that regard. She had a chest X-ray taken because of a persistent cough. The first diagnosis was pneumonia. Seven months later came the diagnosis of lung cancer.
She had half of her left lung removed and underwent chemotherapy. She was cancer-free for five years. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
No one wants to be a connoisseur of cancers, but Cheryl could not help but notice the difference between the two. There is no behavioral link to breast cancer, no one blaming the patients, no one asking if they were smokers. Perhaps the more profound difference was this — at a run for breast cancer in which survivors wore pink, Cheryl, wearing pink herself, saw a sea of women wearing pink.
At a walk organized by the Lung Cancer Connection in 2009, there were less than a dozen survivors.
In fact, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 15.9 percent. For breast cancer, it is 98.6 percent. For that matter, more women die of lung cancer than of breast cancer. That is not meant to minimize breast cancer. My sister died of breast cancer when she was 34.
Myrtle died in 2012.
I met with Cheryl and several members of the Lung Cancer Connection last week. Among the members was Bob Radinksy, Beth’s husband. He talked about the need for early detection. The group provides money for screenings. X-rays, CT scans. People don’t understand everybody is at risk, Bob said. Not all insurance companies provide screenings for people with no risk factors.
Bob first called me in the summer of 2013. I had written a column comparing life to walking across a frozen lake.
“We just fell through the ice,” he said.
Roy Williams was also in the group. He is 66 and he quit smoking almost 30 years ago. He had a chest X-ray two years ago, and doctors discovered early stage lung cancer. He will be among the survivors on the stage this Saturday when Lung Cancer Connection holds its annual walk at the Chesterfield Amphitheater.
Originally, the group held the walk in November. That’s Lung Cancer Awareness month. A November walk didn’t work well because of the weather, but that’s the way it goes for lung cancer patients and their advocates.
Bill McClellan worked as a reporter in Phoenix before coming to the Post-Dispatch in 1980. He was night-police reporter before becoming a columnist in 1983. He also appears on Channel 9’s Donnybrook.