Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Our First Lung Cancer Awareness Month

We had no idea there was a month for lung cancer awareness, but now we do. And it’s almost over.
I debated whether or not to write a post / attempt to “raise awareness.”
44 days post-diagnosis and it’s Our Month!?
This is fresh stuff.
Did you know November has been lung cancer awareness month since 1995? I didn’t.
Lung cancer awareness has an official ribbon color of white. I also didn’t know that.
This year is the 6th Annual “Shine a Light on Lung Cancer,” the largest lung cancer awareness event in the world. It takes place in 200 cities across the US and in multiple countries. I had no idea. Was I just not paying attention or are they not promoted very much in media or social media? Have you ever heard of one?
Currently there is no “Shine A Light” event in Portland or near our communities in Yamhill County that I am aware of...

I still have a hard time telling people Dan has lung cancer. I don’t know if I am ready to identify ourselves with it yet. In fact, I am not. Look at the description on my blog: “I am Leah Ruth and these are my handsome boys. We are living a lovely life with stage 4 cancer.”
I just say “Stage 4 cancer” because after all, it has metastasized. Who cares where it started? It is difficult enough to admit he has cancer. I often don’t have the energy for The Look or The Question if I say lung cancer. These don’t come from loved ones—If you love someone who has lung cancer, nothing matters. But if it is a stranger….We can’t help ourselves, can we?
I get asked, “Did he smoke?”
Lung cancer seems to be the only cancer that I can think of that produces such a deprecating tone from others when it is talked about. I assume it is the stigma of the connection to smoking cigarettes, which implies that a cancer patient has, well, just gone and done it to themselves.
If the person that I am talking to has never smoked, I suppose they need to hear the assurance that Yes, he did smoke; he smoked heavily for ten years. 1-2 packs a day. He was a total smoker. So don’t worry if you don’t smoke…!
Except, anyone can get this cancer. NSCLC – Adenocarcinoma happens to people who have never smoked a single cigarette in their life. And despite Dan’s smoking history, it is still quite an awful lottery ticket to get Stage 4 as an otherwise perfectly healthy 37 year old man.
I read a great quote about cancer cells by George Johnson* once in The New York Times: “As a body lives and grows, its cells are constantly dividing, copying their DNA — this vast genetic library — and bequeathing it to the daughter cells. They in turn pass it to their own progeny: copies of copies of copies. Along the way, errors inevitably occur. Some are caused by carcinogens but most are random misprints.”
We will never tease out what triggered the genetic mutation in Dan’s cells. I firmly believe it may have occurred even if he had never picked up a cigarette. That is what I find sad about lung cancer awareness as I consider embracing it and championing it–There is a desire in me to save the world. I want every person I know that smokes to QUIT. SMOKING. 15 years after you quit, your chances of developing lung cancer are cut in half. Most of you have plenty of time for that. On the other hand, I want to educate the world. Not every lung cancer patient develops cancer because they smoke! And it shouldn’t matter. It should never matter what choices we made if we become sick. Compassion and grace should always
I picked up my first cigarette in college. It was the summer of 2000 and I was living in Goshen, Indiana, in a small house on 8th Street with three other college women. I was alone on a dry, cool evening and decided I was going to try smoking. I don’t even remember the impetus. I walked to a 7-11 and bought a pack of Menthol cigarettes and a lighter and nervously walked back to the house having absolutely no clue what to do next. I never intended to smoke. In fact, I grew up in a house where my older sister smoked and I passionately disliked it. I thought it was disgusting and ridiculous. However, living on my own for the first time, spending the summer in my college town away from my childhood home seemed like a proper disconnect. I felt young, vibrant, artsy, independent, and slightly heart-broken and misunderstood. I felt moody enough to be a bit of a delicate smoker.
I sat outside on the lawn in the dim light of the street lamp and leaned against a Red Maple. I started to pull out a cigarette from the box and then quickly hid it as a couple walked up with a child in a stroller. I was old enough to buy the cigarettes and smoke them, but I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I didn’t want them to know what I was doing. And was it OK to smoke around a child? By the time that the couple wandered away,  I realized that I didn’t even know which end of the cigarette to light or how to actually smoke it. All of those years seeing my sister smoke or other students smoking and I never paid attention to how they actually did it.
I ran inside and tried to find a magazine with a photograph of a person smoking. Which end was which?
I took a guess. And it was wrong.
I tried again.
And I ended up smoking regularly off and on for the next 8 years. I craved them when I listened to music, read, drove, wrote, drank coffee or alcohol, or sat around and talked with my fellow smokers. I had to smoke after meals, before meals, during work breaks, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, etc. As I became addicted, I believed smoking was a part of my actual identity. I needed it because it was me. And I liked it. I quit twice but eventually started again.
In 2008, I got a severe flu virus and was dehydrated and feverish for a week. I didn’t smoke the entire time. After I recovered, I didn’t like the taste of cigarettes anymore. I was bothered again by the smell. I missed the ritual, the addiction. But every time that I tried, I hated it. I gave up trying. Dan continued to smoke and I disapproved. But what could I do? You can not force someone who is addicted to something to stop. They have to hit rock bottom or find a secret way out themselves. I know this from my other addictions. My secret way out of smoking was my illness, but then deciding to hate the addiction. I hated that it cost me money, health, and time. I hated the smell it made everything I owned and wore and touched smell. (Not to be confused with the actual burning cigarette smell, which I actually didn’t mind still. The other smell.) I just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. I learned to hate it more than I loved it (and trust me, there were many other awful coping mechanisms that I loved that I moved onto in replace of it, but more about those another time). And then I got pregnant. There was no turning back.
Dan’s rock bottom was the birth of our son. Once Raine was home with us for a short while, Dan went cold turkey. He was grouchy and gained some weight but being healthy for Raine and not exposing Raine to smoke was more important than his addiction. He hasn’t smoked in several years. It is absolutely the single thing I am most proud of him in our life together. I am so proud. He committed to tackling an addiction and has stood with it.
So it is with mixed feelings that I accept our month, November, lung cancer awareness month.
Dan quit. He made the right choice. He doesn’t deserve this illness.
I don’t want to be a chosen family for this platform. I don’t want to be spreading awareness. But here we are.
And the truth is, no one deserves this illness. It is devastating. Absolutely devastating.
So I guess I begin by sharing our story.
And changing my blog description.
And Wednesday, November 26th, on the Eve of Thanksgiving, I am going to host a “Shine A Light” event. Even if it is just me and Dan lighting a candle in our living room.
Who is with me?


  1. CHRISTIE: We’re with you! What a fantastic post. I have to say, the few people I have spoken with about you and Dan have also asked the “does he/did he smoke” question. I think the people who ask are merely looking for a reason, they want to ascribe blame – not to Dan for smoking, but to the cigarettes themselves. #cancerisadick

  2. I have had other friends share that with me, too, Christie–that their friends want to know if he smoked. I need to remember that it doesn’t necessarily mean they are blaming Dan, but ascribing blame to something else. It has come up with his profession as well–if people find out he was in landscaping, they ascribe blame to pesticides. Oh boy, who knows! LOL. Thanks for the encouragement about the post. It was hard to write. I just want to raise awareness that smoking may/may not be a factor the way we might all traditionally believe when we think of lung cancer. And really, the cause isn’t the point. Supporting individuals and families who have to manage lung cancer is the goal. ❤

  3. DALON: This is a great idea Leah!!!! Why don’t we share this work-of-mouth and meet at the upper park with whoever shows up? I’ll be there with my boys at 6:00 p.m.Thanks for sharing so much on your blog. Your writing is beautiful and totally from the heart.

  4. CARMEN SCHRAM: Thank you for sharing this!! My dad was just diagnosed with lung cancer and the question people keep asking is if he smoked. Yes he did, but like you said that isn’t what is important…. Grace and compassion is though!!

    1. Carmen, I am sorry he was given the diagnosis. I hope you and he have loved ones and good support. I am still learning how important it is to use resources and support of others. Best to you all.

  5. LAURA FOSSELMAN: Leah- I am so sorry. Since reading the blog, I think of you and Dan and Raine often. My thoughts and prayers are with you guys. I sent you the Cancer Chronicles book and hope that it helps in some small way.

    1. Hi Laura, thanks for thinking of us. That is so sweet of you to send the book. 🙂 Dan and I like the science of things (him more than I—he understands it all better), so that will be a good read for us. Thank you so much!