Clearing the Air: Group fights lung cancer stigma
By JEAN ENERSEN / KING 5 News
When 44-year-old Dana Reeve sang Madison Square Garden earlier this year, she showed no sign she was battling lung cancer. Two months later she died.
Dana's death becomes a dramatic reminder that lung cancer strikes even non-smokers.
In an emotional broadcast in April 2005, longtime ABC News anchor Peter Jennings revealed that he was ill. Four months later Jennings died at home. His passing put a temporary spotlight on the country's most stigmatized and lethal cancer.
Even in Washington, where the number of smokers has dropped and cigarettes are banned from public places, lung cancer is the number-one cancer killer. Often overshadowed by pink ribbons and yellow wrist bands, the cancer has few advocates.
Peter Jennings died four months after announcing his illness.
“There just aren't many of us around,” said one patient. “Since I’ve been in the group we've lost five people. And you can't keep enough people in the group… this is really unusual because the group is usually pretty small.”
As the only lung cancer support group in Washington, smokers and non-smokers talk freely at Northwest Hospital and Medical Center. Just compare cancer deaths and you see how lung cancer out numbers them all. There are a couple of reasons for that.
Medical specialists like doctors Renato Martins and Douglas Wood of the University and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance say diagnosing lung cancer early can be difficult because symptoms show up so late.
“The symptoms depend a lot on where a lung cancer is -- a lung cancer that's near the central part of the lung may produce pneumonia, with cough,” said Dr. Wood. “On the other hand, a tumor on the outside part of the lung that is growing and starting to invade the chest wall , the ribs will produce pain.”
Fighting the lung cancer stigma
It takes the average smoker eight attempts before they can quit. This is the first day of a quit smoking class for Fred, Rich and John.
Kicking the habit is the number one way for anyone to prevent lung cancer. But, there are no guarantees. Just ask Cecilia Izzo, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and now has difficulty talking and walking.
“I have a joke with friends,” she said. “I tell them I’d love to go for a walk with them but I can't walk and talk…It is tough because I have just the one lung.”
She smoked a little as a teenager, but that was it.
“I smoked as teenager, I wanted to be cool, I was never a heavy smoker, so I don't know why,” she said.
She was also raised in a family of smokers,
“I have give siblings that are alive and everyone of them smokes cigarettes, which is the irony of this,” she said. “I am the one that preached for years: exercise, eat right and don't smoke. And I have these five siblings who continue smoking and they’re fine, not to say they won't be, they may very well have lung cancer in a few years because it has been shown that can happen.”
Three years ago , while living in another state, Cecilia suffered excruciating pain in her right shoulder. It came as quickly as it went. It was a right upper lobe cancerous mass that went undiagnosed for seven months,
Cecilia Izzo was raised in a family of smokers.
When surgeons finally found her mass and went to remove it, they took much more than anyone expected.
“So I woke up to find out it wasn't just the mass, it was the entire lung,” Cecilia said.
Months of chemotherapy came next, then a move to Seattle. Cecilia now cherishes every moment with her family and she doesn’t let two teenage daughters or a missing lung slow her down.
But, look at her x-rays and you can see the ghostly, empty gap in her chest and the irregular curve of her trachea.
“So when I breathe, it doesn’t go straight up…you know when wind goes around the corner and you get that wheezing and that high pitched sound?," she said. "That's what happening to me, because sometimes I hear this sound and I think it’s the trees and it’s me breathing.”
Although she sometimes struggles to speak, it doesn't stop her from speaking out about lung cancer. She's the one who started the one-of-a-kind support group
“I always felt I needed a lung cancer specific group because whenever anyone would hear I had lung cancer, the first thing they'd say was: ‘Were you a smoker?,’” she said.
“So what if somebody did smoke and they quit 20 years ago ? Should they still be punished. If somebody tells me they have cervical cancer, the first thing I say to them is not ‘What sort of sexually transmitted disease do you have?’ You just don't do that. Lung cancer seems to be fair game for people.’”