Unfortunately, it is the truth. The pain seen on my mom’s face and the fact that she has never smoked a day in her life and has Stage IV lung cancer is the best “gift” the lung cancer community could possible have. Of course, she is not the only one that makes for a good story angle. That’s the whole point here, folks. According to the Lung Cancer Alliance, over 60% of new lung cancer cases are never smokers or former smokers, many of whom quit decades ago.
Since I have started my “WTF” (Where’s the Funding) for Lung Cancer? campaign, I have had a tremendous response from lung cancer patients, lung cancer organizations/foundations and the news media. I am on a mission to increase awareness and funding for lung cancer –all of those with lung cancer: smokers, former smokers, never smokers. I am telling my mom’s story, and providing a forum and center of connectedness for all those with lung cancer to share their stories as well, in order to accomplish these goals.
I have also received some anticipated backlash from some in the lung cancer community that I am focusing too much on the fact that my mom never smoked. I am told I need to stop labeling those with lung cancer as never smokers, smokers and former smokers, as this is only perpetuating the stigma that looms over lung cancer’s head. I honestly do appreciate the feedback and passion from everyone I hear from, whether it’s positive or negative. So, please keep the comments coming. This is not easy stuff. I thought it may help to explain the rationale behind my campaign.
Once again, this is a personal campaign I am waging. I am telling my mom’s story to make a difference. My mom is a never smoker. My mom has inoperable, incurable lung cancer. I won’t stop mentioning the fact that she has never smoked – ever. And, this should actually be viewed as a very positive move. Here’s why. My mom’s story (and all those other 60%-ers) is the “best” thing to happen to lung cancer. Her story is the best, and only (in my opinion) vehicle to start the long process of removing that stigma and getting people to take action. And, on a positive note, this strategy is actually working.
As you see here, Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) from Nebraska (where I live) joined as a co-sponsor of the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act. You also see the sub-head to that press release says, “Visit by Lung Cancer Alliance Advocate, Kevin Atkinson, Spurs Action.” Kevin Atkinson is the brother of John Atkinson who recently died of lung cancer. John was 40 years-old and also a never smoker. John was also a friend of mine. We spent a lot of time together while working at Omaha’s CBS affiliate, KMTV. I was a reporter. He was a photojournalist. He was an amazing person and an incredible advocate for lung cancer awareness. John also knew that the key to making any strides in lung cancer awareness was to tell his story. A 40 year-old husband and father of three who had never smoked had lung cancer. This is news.
John’s tenacity and message resulted in him winning the Golf Digest challenge to play at Torrey Pines with Matt Lauer, Justin Timberlake and Tony Romo ahead of the US Open. The Lung Cancer Alliance Survivors Community and his many friends and family members rallied around this contest and helped him to win it by a landslide. John was able to bring awareness to lung cancer by his participation in the tournament, and subsequent interviews on the Today Show and other major news and radio shows. Below is Matt Lauer’s story on John’s death and the “state of lung cancer” here. We miss you John, terribly.
So, what does all of this have to do with Senator Nelson? Everything. As a former reporter turned PR practitioner – with some experience in the political arena – here is the bottom line: Had John been a smoker or former smoker, very few senators would have given Kevin Atkinson the time of day to talk about his brother. The news media wouldn’t have latched onto his story. Again, I am not bashing smokers or former smokers. I am simply keeping it real.
I have interviewed Senator Nelson several times and personally like him, but lung cancer is a totally different beast. You know, that damn stigma. Politics is also a totally different beast. And, what politician wants to associate himself with that stigma? While we are some seeing positive steps from our members of Congress, it’s still not enough.
Senator Nelson now has a personal, logical and statistical reason (or an additional reasons) to support the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act. He understands it’s not just a smoker’s disease. He understands that by co-sponsoring this act, he may get a little flack, but not enough to make him lose re-election or tarnish his reputation. Now, have I completely perpetuated the negative stereotype of politicians? Perhaps. I am more than happy to hear from Senator Nelson to better understand his decision. I am willing to bet he would even admit the difficulty of being a politician in favor of change for lung cancer legislation. For that, I thank him.
The stigma that looms over lung cancer has dropped a level, thanks to John and his family and other advocates who pound on Washington doors. All I can say is keep it up. I know I am going to. That’s the whole point of “WTF” (Where’s the Funding) for Lung Cancer? Simple. Politically incorrect. Straight-to-the-point. There is no time for “spin” when it comes to lung cancer. While PR people may have the reputation as “spinsters,” I am so NOT one.
So, dare I say, thank goodness my mom has lung cancer? Well, yes…and Hell no! But, educating and convincing those in power that people like John and my mom have lung cancer is really the only “in” we have to work with right now. It’s the only way to open the door to even present an opportunity for a rational dialogue about lung cancer and that ignoring it is no longer an option – regardless of how people get it.
According to the American Cancer Society’s most recent lung cancer statistics, in 2009, an estimated 116,900 U.S. men and 103,350 women will be diagnosed with lung cancer and an estimated 88,900 men and 70,490 women will die from lung cancer. Again, 60% of those are never smokers or former smokers. This is my mom. This is her story. It’s the angle I am running with – for ALL lung cancer victims. I hope you run with me.