Smoke Screens, and the reality of lung cancer.


March 26, 2013 by kittynh

My husband had a very close relationship to his cousin Lilly. They shared a birthday.  She was a wonderful person, but very into new age beliefs.  Lilly considered herself to be open minded and was sadly open to every bit of bunk floating around the internet.  She smoked, and was smart enough to know that smoking was harmful.  Still, she had trouble quitting.

moneywowowmonkey smoking_edited-1

Instead of working with her physician on quitting, she spent a lot of time lookingsmoking two.. for reassurance that perhaps smoking wasn’t bad for you.  She of course found it.

Lilly “learned” that Japanese men have a much lower lung cancer rate than Western men.  This is a true fact.  No problem.  However she then began eating a diet higher in fish. She had read a report that it was the diet of the Japanese that kept them from getting lung cancer.  I had to point out to her that some Japanese people do get lung cancer, even with eating copious amounts of fish.  She also switched to very expensive imported Asian cigarettes, as she had read “somehwere” that Western cigarette companies added carcinogens to make  cigarettes addictive.  There was a sense she would be safe smoking  Asian cigarettes. It was those “addictive additives” that were the problem, not the cigarette itself.  She could explain in detail why it was alright for her to smoke, because she had done her research and was being “safe”.

Genetic differences, which might account for the lung cancer rate difference, were ignored.

In her case this was probably why she did eventually die from cancer at a very young age.  Most people that smoke do not get cancer in their 40’s and 50’s.  My husband’s family is different. My father in law died of lung cancer at age 55, despite having given up smoking 5 years before his death.  My husband’s family is littered with early cancer death from smoking, there are no smokers that make it to age 60.

My own children grew up with my telling them, “Other people can smoke and it will take 7-10 years off their life, our family you will die before you reach age 60.  You may even die in your 40’s. You are probably genetically cursed.”  Smoking in our case was not a lifestyle choice.  We lived with the sadness of funerals, and to this day I look at my daughters and think ” My father in law would be so proud.”  He never knew his granddaughter graduated from MIT.  He never knew his grandson joined the Air Force and is a pilot.

Right after he died my daughter studied the Civil War at school. The Civil War was his hobby.   He had a priceless collection of books about the Civil War, and all I could think was how much fun they would have had talking together on the subject. He could have taught her so much.  My own husband had to deal with a lot of anger issues.  He was angry that his father had smoked for so long, and it took a long time for my husband to deal with his hurt feelings.  His father had quit, but it just had not been soon enough.

Lilly decided that fish and Asian cigarettes were the way to go.   She kept smoking11assuring us she had researched it.  When she was diagnosed with bone cancer, her feeling was one of “See, it’s not lung cancer?  It wasn’t my smoking!”  I was shocked that she felt the need to defend her smoking, even as she was diagnosed with a horrible form of cancer.

Lilly asked for my help.  She needed to beat this disease.  She went at it as she went after cigarette smoking.  There had to be a “secret” or some cure that worked that was out there now.  Her doctors gave her a terrible prognosis.  She was going to prove them wrong.

I gave in and sent her several “woo” books which I easily found in Brattleboro Vermont, one of the new age hippy centers of the world.  She was upset when she read them, as the people still died.   They perhaps felt better about being ill, they felt they were being helped by the new age treatment (which was often expensive) but they still died.  The books with case studies of eating weird mushrooms or visualization were oddly honest that, in the end, the patients still died.  Lilly kept pushing me, she had exhausted the new age resources where she lived, surely I could come up with something.

smoking mushroom....

There is no magic cure for lung cancer

I had sewn her a lap quilt, with a place for people to sign good wishes to her.  She could snuggle up in it and read all the loving hope written there.  To me, it was just a comforting gesture.  To her, she could “feel the healing energy” when she was wrapped in it.

Lilly died.  She had been ever hopeful that the next treatment or thought process or weird diet would work.  Her doctor later said the cancer had probably started in her lungs.

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that lung cancer is only caused by medical_lung_cancersmoking.  My friend Dell, is still getting treatment for her lung cancer, 9 years after being diagnosed!  She never smoked a day in her life and her diagnosis in her late 30’s was a shock.  She has never even been around people that smoke.  She volunteered for an experimental treatment program that has proven so effective it was stopped early so others could benefit from the knowledge gained.

She will literally never stop chemotherapy.  Her chemotherapy changes when her cancer does not respond to a treatment, and it’s changed quickly.  She never has a break, except for a week once a year when she goes on vacation.   Some of the treatments require IV treatments, others are nothing more than a simple pill.  She runs the gamut from violently ill, to barely noticing she is taking anything.  When she’s run through the treatments, she starts them over again, as the cancer has “forgotten” about the first treatment in the process.  I’m sure it’s far more complicated than this.  However, her cancer treatment has allowed her to see her children grow up and she has even become a grandmother. She still works full time, and no one knows how long they can keep tricking her cancer, but she is already thrilled with the extra time no one ever imagined she would have.

thanks to science, her grandchildren have someone to spoil them!

thanks to science, her grandchildren have someone to spoil them!

The one problem she does have is people assume she was a smoker. I have been with her when people have said “Boy I bet you wish you had never smoked huh?”  Sometimes parents even want her to talk to their children about the dangers of smoking.  She handles it not by saying “I don’t smoke! No I never lived with a smoker or was around smoke!”    Instead she just changes the subject.  I used speak up saying “You know, she never smoked, not even one cigarette!”, but Dell asked me to stop doing that.

She has become friends with her fellow lung cancer patients.  She doesn’t think anyone “deserves” lung cancer.  She refuses to “throw them under the bus”, and disassociate herself from them.  They are good friends fighting together and supporting each other.  She also points out that women have a high rate of non smoking lung cancer.  This was thought to be because they lived with smoking husbands, but has proven to be not true.  Non smoking lung cancer is the 6th leading cause of cancer deaths, any one of us could get lung cancer and not because we worked in a ship yard or smoked.  Fund raising for lung cancer sometimes suffers from the assumption that if people didn’t smoke no one would die of lung cancer.

So, while both women had early cancer diagnosis, and both researched their disease, I find Dell the better critical thinker.  Instead of looking for the CURE, the magic bullet, Dell decided to try traditional medicine.  She figured that even if she was in the placebo group of the study she volunteered for,  she would be helping science.  She had no great expectations from being part of this experimental treatment plan, which basically is never ever stopping treatment.  She still lives with cancer, you can even see it on her CAT scans.  It’s there, just waiting.  The longer it waits the happier we all are.

Her oncologist compared her cancer to a mean dog.  The medication is a big stick, Mean-Dog-Bite-605x422keeping it in the corner growling.  One day, it will attack, but until then physicians will do everything they can to get a bigger and better stick.

I think we often try to look for reassurance in science, some scientific study that will allow us to continue with a habit that makes us feel comfortable and happy.  Also alternative medicine flourishes when people can’t live with there being no answer. We hope somehow, somewhere, someone knows the answer we are desperate for.  The internet can supply answers, but if the only answers are bad ones, that’s what people will embrace.

That’s why skeptic thinking and critical thinking work is so important. Often truth is hard to handle, and there are many people in the world willing to lie and take advantage of those that most vulnerable.  It’s not fair to ask someone dying from lung cancer to research and study if a treatment is going to be helpful or not.  That often falls to those physicians and skeptics that fight the good fight against alternative medicine, and help guide patients toward what is sometimes their only small hope for a longer survival.

(you can buy a smoking monkey on etsy….)

2 thoughts on “Smoke Screens, and the reality of lung cancer.

  1. judgej says:

    Reading without critical thinking, and selective reading to support your own hypothesis is not research … she was doing “research” not research.

    Personally, I’m working hard to filter fact from fiction in my currently diagnosed situation. So, it rings a little “off” when I read how you phrased her self-reinforcing pursuits.

    Thanks for sharing the article, though — you have a good message, well articulated.

    • kittynh says:

      good luck, yes sadly, her research was not what I would call research. My one friend works closely in conjunction with the incredible staff at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. They make no false promises, I think when you read “cures” and claims too good to be true, it’s a huge red flag. If nothing the medical staff underpromises at DHMC, and it’s a real family feeling. I find the “woo” cures tended to not like too many questions, it’s more endless personal testimonials. It’s a heart breaking job to work oncology, and I can only admire the people that chose that profession.

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