Deloris G. Russell ~ My Story by Rita Russell
Don’t smoke and you won’t have to worry about getting lung cancer. Like most people, I had always assumed that statement was true. It’s routinely trumpeted by physicians and the media, and it’s at the heart of almost every antismoking campaign. So it must be true, right? Well, the truth is it’s not. Nine years ago I discovered more about lung cancer than I ever wanted to know, when my family was blindsided by the disease.
My mother, Deloris, was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer in July 2001. To say she was shocked by the news is an understatement. She was devastated, bewildered, confused, and afraid. How could this have happened? Everyone always talks about the risk of women getting breast cancer, but lung cancer? How could a healthy, 53-year-old nonsmoker suddenly develop a smokers’ disease?
Vibrant and beautiful, full of love, life, and energy, my mother was not the stereotypical face of lung cancer. She was not some dried up old woman who had spent years puffing away on cigarettes. In fact, my mom never smoked a day in her life. None of her friends smoked, and neither did her family. For over 25 years she had been a stay-at-home mom, and prior to that she had worked in smoke-free environments.
My mom grew up on a farm in the Mississippi Delta, eating healthful foods and exercising on a regular basis. In high school she was a star athlete, and she remained in excellent shape as an adult, walking nearly four miles around our neighborhood several times a week. Other than an occasional cold or flu, illness had never impacted her life.
So when in February 2001 my mother suddenly began coughing and feeling short of breath and fatigued, her family doctor saw no need to worry. Bronchitis, he confidently diagnosed. But after several rounds of antibiotics and prescription cough medicines, her symptoms persisted.
Still, her doctor assured her there was no reason for alarm. Her chest x-rays were clear. Her swollen lymph nodes, he said, were probably due to sarcoidosis. He practically guaranteed a biopsy would confirm it. Instead, the biopsy confirmed the last thing anyone expected—lung cancer.
Accepting my mother’s lung cancer diagnosis was nearly impossible for my family. Even harder to comprehend was lung cancer’s horrifyingly low survivability rate. Only 15% of lung cancer patients live five years beyond their diagnosis; most survive barely a year. But those bleak numbers didn’t matter to my mom. She believed that with good medical care and her strong faith in God, she would beat the odds and survive the disease.
For 14 months my mother bravely fought her cancer, enduring multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. Her final line of therapy was an experimental drug. Through it all she showed heroic strength, courage, and character every single day. Not once did she complain about the difficulty of her treatments or the pain she must surely have felt as the cancer spread through her body. Until her very last breath, she remained deeply hopeful and prayerful, fully expecting a miracle recovery that would allow her to continue happily living the rest of her life. Sadly, that miracle never came. On September 12, 2002, my wonderful mother and very best friend passed away.
Although my mother’s battle against lung cancer was finished, mine was just beginning. Early in her illness, I had vowed that after she got better, I would find some way to assist other lung cancer patients and raise awareness about the true facts of the disease. Where was the public outcry against the nation’s #1 cancer killer that claims over 400 lives each day? Where were the early detection screenings and effective treatments? Where were the fundraisers – the walk-a-thons, hospital galas, and benefit concerts? Where were the celebrity advocates? Where were the support groups for lung cancer patients?
Nearly a decade after my mother’s passing, it still breaks my heart to know that she suffered through her illness without the benefit of ever meeting another lung cancer patient, without ever truly knowing that she wasn’t the only one.
The stigma of lung cancer adversely affected my mom throughout the course of her illness. From friends and family to physicians and medical professionals, many people assumed she must have smoked at some point in her life. On several occasions it was appalling to see the accusatory manner in which some doctors treated her. “So, how long have you smoked, Mrs. Russell?” they would coolly ask. When she would politely answer never, they were momentarily silenced. A weak apology often followed.
Since my mom didn’t have a smoking history, many people were eager to dismiss her cancer as a fluke. Doing so made it easier for them to think they were still in control, that lung cancer wouldn’t actually happen to them as long as they were smoke-free. If only lung cancer were that simple.
Approximately 15% of new lung cancers are diagnosed in people like my mom who don’t smoke. Only about 10-15% of individuals who actually do smoke are ever diagnosed with the disease. Logically, those numbers just don’t add up. If smoking is, indeed, the main cause of lung cancer, why don’t the vast majority of smokers ever get the disease? And why in the world do so many nonsmokers get it?
How I wish Lung Cancer Connection had been around nine years ago to support my mom through her cancer experience. Being part of the group might not have extended her life, but I’m certain it would have lifted her spirits and helped her feel a little more empowered and a lot less isolated. Several times I caught her staring off into space with a look of lonely disbelief in her eyes. I’m sure she wondered, Why me? Why is lung cancer happening to me? Although she had lived a very healthy life, she couldn’t help questioning what she might have done wrong to have gotten lung cancer.
But the fact is my mom didn’t do anything wrong. And neither did the hundreds of thousands of other people who are fighting lung cancer today. The only wrong thing is the blame-the-victim stigma of lung cancer, which thwarts public support for finding better treatments and a cure. No one deserves lung cancer – not smokers, former smokers, or never smokers.
The face of lung cancer is not some grizzled old man or woman who has spent decades smoking their life away. It’s a 20-year-old bubbly college student. It’s a 36-year-old dedicated doctor and single mom. It’s a 42-year-old inspiring teacher, husband, and father. It’s my 53-year-old amazing mother. And one day in the future, it just might be you.
The truth is if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. It’s an equal opportunity disease that is quietly stealing the life of thousands of people every day. Support Lung Cancer Connection and other lung cancer advocacy groups. Don’t wait until you or someone you love needs a cure.