It’s a question I’m asked almost every time I have to tell the story of my husband dying at the age of 34 from lung cancer. I hate that question. Even though it seems like innocent curiosity, it comes across to me more like, “So, was it his fault he died?” I know that’s not what people mean to put it so bluntly like that, but that’s ultimately, and probably logistically, the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they hear the words “lung” and “cancer” put together. I get it. It’s a stigma. I’m the last one who’d ever support any tobacco company, and yet, I’m (and million others) are still affected by this terrible disease.
According to the American Lung Association’s web site, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, as well as the “lowest five-year survival rates of all cancer types,” and yet, it flies under the radar and lacks awareness and support because it’s so intertwined with the choice to smoke.
If I sound a little angry, I’m not, but I’m really tired of defending my husband’s death, or even hesitating to answer that question with the truth. Was he a former smoker? Yes. Did he get lung cancer because he smoked? That’s up for debate as there are two types of lung cancer: non-small cell and small cell. Under the umbrella of non-small cell are several different subtypes: Adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma. My husband had non-small cell adenocarcinoma which, according to the American Cancer Society’s site is a “type of lung cancer that occurs mainly in current or former smokers, but it is also the most common type of lung cancer seen in non-smokers. It is more common in women than in men, and it is more likely to occur in younger people than other types of lung cancer.” So clearly it’s a complicated disease. Was it smoking, was it genetic, was it some freak thing? The doctors on his case explained that the cancer had probably been slowly growing since he was a boy, but several years of smoking definitely didn’t help the situation. Do I get angry at my late husband sometimes for smoking for the short time he did? I do. Was that the reason he was diagnosed at 22? I don’t know. Why do some people who have never smoked and run marathons get it and there are other people who turn 100 smoking a pack a week? Why did my husband have to die when he did the right thing and quit in his early 20s? I have no idea, all I know is it ripped my family apart and took away my three kids’ daddy. All I know is I had lung cancer with him, my kids had lung cancer with him, because cancer doesn’t just affect the person who has it, but all the people who love them and are deeply tied to them.
Bottom line is any cancer sucks. And when you are talking to someone who lost a loved one to cancer, it really doesn’t matter which kind it was and, a better question might be: “What kind of person was he? I bet he was really wonderful…I’m so sorry he had to face that terrible disease.”
Since lung cancer is the leading killer as far as cancer is concerned, but smoking statistics have declined from 1965 to 2014 as reported by the Center for Disease Control, I’m not sure we can still keep blaming smoking totally. There are other factors involved: increase in toxic pollutants, genetics and other factors that are being researched. I hate smoking, I hate that my husband smoked, but I get angrier at his genes; it’s just not fair. It wasn’t my choice that he smoked, but it was my choice that I loved him. I’m not making excuses for smokers, it’s a habit that has so many physical and mental consequences, but we all do damaging things in our lives, and yet people still continue to love us despite that, and it still continues to hurt when you lose someone, no matter the cause.