On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for all the advocates who promote cures for the most devastating and debilitating medical conditions around. One advocate in particular comes to mind during the lung cancer awareness month of November, Dana Reeve. Many will remember her as the valiant caregiver to her husband Christopher Reeve after he became quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury as a result of falling off his horse. Together with Christopher, she also became an ardent advocate for spinal cord injury cure research, and she continued her advocacy even after his passing in 2004 from complications of a pressure sore.
When I met her at the Cure Paralysis Now rally in July of 2005 on Capitol Hill, little did I know that she too would soon loose her life far too young. Dana Reeve succumbed to lung cancer only nine months later, in the spring of 2006. She had not yet been diagnosed when I met her, but I do remember her coughing and thinking she had a cold. That is exactly the problem with lung cancer: there are very few warning signs and by the time you have a persistent cough, it often has already progressed to a stage 4.
Roughly as many people get lung cancer as breast cancer, but what many people don’t know is that lung cancer is about four times more deadly than breast cancer. Spinal cord injury advocates and others were stunned that Dana would even develop lung cancer because she had never smoked. Checking into the causes of lung cancer revealed that 80% are due to smoking, leaving another 20% like Dana exposed to second hand smoking or other environmental toxins. As a singer Dana had to have been performing in smoke filled venues, and even her husband had been a smoker. So that may very well have contributed to her development of lung cancer.
There are over 7,000 chemicals in cigarettes and about 70 of them are known to cause cancer, yet our youth has continued to pick up this very addictive habit. Though smoking has lost much of its sex appeal, nearly 25% of high school students smoke, and those who smoke before the age of 21 have the hardest time quitting. According to Bruce Johnson, MD, the director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute:
For those who do smoke and decide to quit now, within weeks to months they can begin to reduce the risks of heart attack and lung cancer. “People who stop and remain a non-smoker for at least 10 to 20 years can cut their risk of developing lung cancer by 50 to 75 percent,”
While breast cancer is more prominent in the public eye, we need to remember that lung cancer claims more American lives than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. Sadly, part of the reason lung cancer gets less attention is because it is generally perceived as being brought on by people’s own actions. There are 45 million Americans who smoke, and though we’ve come a long way in banning smoking in public places, far too many people still die even from second hand smoking.
What’s worse is that:
While lung cancer remains largely a death sentence – just 15.9 percent of those diagnosed are alive five years later – the federal government funds far less research on the disease than on other common cancers. The discrepancy is starkest when death rates are taken into account. In 2011, the two federal agencies providing most of the research money funded breast cancer research at a rate of $21,641 per death while spending $1,489 per lung cancer death.
Let’s keep Dana Reeve, and Peter Jennings death’s in mind, next time breast cancer funds are being asked of us. There might be a more life-saving way to fund cancer research.