When I was initially diagnosed with lung cancer, I was shocked. Truly. Even though I did smoke for many years, I had quit smoking about 15 years earlier. I’m not saying that I thought my chances of suffering any of the health effects smoking causes had vanished completely, but I thought that they had greatly diminished. My maternal grandmother died of lung cancer and my mother had recently been diagnosed with it also. They both had a history of smoking; however, Mom quit over 25 years before. In addition, a cousin, who never smoked, was also diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Subsequently, my mother and cousin have also lost their battles with this disease.
I am lucky in that when I was diagnosed, I had a tremendous support system: family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. All of these wonderful people assisted wherever they could, responded whenever I needed them, and emotionally helped me to get through some really dark times. I was facing a formidable disease that required various treatments. I received chemotherapy for three months, radiation simultaneously during six of those weeks, and two lung surgeries. I am so grateful for all the compassionate people in my life at that time, including doctors and nurses who made this hell bearable.
What was irksome, however, was when I would tell someone that I had lung cancer, more times than not, the first thing they would ask was, “Did you smoke?” What difference does it make? Of course the implication is that I did something to deserve this horrific disease. I’m sure that the people who ask this question don’t intend to purposely imply this, but, it is exactly what the question suggests.
I can understand, to some degree, the psychology involved, even if it is subconsciously, to believe that people cause their own health problems. If you believe that, then it eases the worry you might have about suffering the same fate. For instance, I can see believing that if you have never smoked, then you won’t have to worry about lung cancer (not true by the way), or that if you are obese you are responsible for all of the ill-effects obesity has on your body. It makes people feel secure–as though they have control over their own fate: “If I take care of myself, then I won’t need to worry about suffering the consequences of not leading a healthy lifestyle.” To some extent this may be true, however, there are so many factors to many diseases that are not yet discovered. Just look at how often a new scientific study is published contradicting something that another study previously stated. Is coffee good or bad for us, what amount of red wine is beneficial, do Omega-3s really improve heart health, are there any benefits to taking vitamins? We are bombarded with information that isn’t the ultimate word–there are always more studies to be considered. Even though we want to be in control of our health, this is not necessarily possible.
A great essay on this subject that delves even deeper is, “Hating the Sick: Health Chauvinism and Its Cure” by Fred Pelka, published in The Prose Reader, The: Essays for Thinking, Reading, and Writing – See more at: http://catalogue.pearsoned.co.uk.
Yes, there are certain actions that we can associate with diseases: smoking increases one’s risk of lung cancer. Period. But what else does? What about exposure to radon or asbestos? What about genetic factors? Why do some people smoke their entire lives and never get lung cancer and others have a history of smoking just a few years long ago and get it? What about all the people who have never smoked–not even socially? How do we explain their suffering?
One evening, I was discussing this with my husband, and it occurred to me that what made me so angry was that I felt that I was being judged, and that felt unfair. Then and there I decided that in the future, whenever anyone asked me if I ever smoked, I was going to lie and say, “No!” We laughed about it and said, “That solves that.”
Not long after, I was at the Cancer Center for radiation. I was scheduled everyday at the same time, as were the people receiving treatment before and after me. This particular day, there was a new woman in the waiting area. We introduced ourselves and made small talk while waiting for our turn to be “zapped.” She asked me what type of cancer I had, and I told her, “lung.” (I have to tell you that she reeked of cigarettes). Her eyes widened and she asked, “Did you smoke?” I didn’t have the audacity to tell my lie, and, so, I told her that I had, years ago. “Oh,” she was very sympathetic. I asked her what type of cancer she was being treated for and she responded, “Anal.” I don’t know what came over me, but I started to giggle uncontrollably. . . all I could think was, “Did you sh*t?” She responded with a nervous laugh, and then, thankfully, I was called in for my treatment. I know I behaved badly, and should be remorseful about it, but somehow I found that encounter liberating.