Sad, BUT He Was a Smoker

According to yesterday’s newspaper, Gay Brewer died. If you are a golfer of a certain age or older, you’ll remember Gay Brewer as a hot shot on the PGA tour back in the 1960s. He was cool. I was a fan.

Turns out that Gay Brewer died of lung cancer.

Last week, I interviewed Dr. Leslie Kohman, thoracic surgeon from University Hospital in Syracuse, NY for my radio show. Our conversation was about lung cancer and the fact that funding from the government for lung cancer research is so much less than for other cancers, despite the fact that four times more men and women die from lung cancer than either breast or prostate cancers.

I asked her why she thought that was true.

Her explanation was one of those lightbulb moments that really makes you sit up and take note. “When you hear of someone who has contracted breast cancer or prostate cancer, you feel sorry for them. Your sympathies lie with that unsuspecting victim of those and most other cancers.

“But when you hear someone has been diagnosed or died of lung cancer, your reaction is, “Sad, but he was a smoker,’ as if he brought it on himself. It was his fault so therefore you don’t feel so sorry for him.

(Ohhhh, geeeez…. never thought about it that way.)

Dr. Kohman went on to explain about the bias against those with lung cancer because it is assumed they smoked, even when 40 percent of them never did. Most of that 40 percent, ended up with lung cancer after exposure to second-hand smoke.

I hate to think I’m so biased, but I probably have been before now. What I know about smoking from any of my friends or family who have ever smoked (thankfully, I don’t) is that nicotine is horribly addictive, and extremely difficult to get away from. Once it has you hooked, its claws are in you so tight, it’s almost impossible to get them out.

The vast, vast majority of smokers would give it up in a heartbeat if they only could. And that means it’s just not fair for me to find fault with them, or anyone else, for having lung cancer.

There are other diseases we have similar biases about, as if it’s up to any of us to make judgments. AIDs, cirrhosis of the liver, emphysema…. We also make judgments about who “deserves” to be treated — people who are obese, or unclean, or or alcoholic, or any of a number of other reasons…. Many doctors will even admit their biases in those directions.

Who among us can throw stones inside our glass houses?

We all deserve good health and good healthcare. None of us deserves a horrible disease or condition, nor have we “earned” one.

My condolences to Gay Brewer’s family and friends. He was a good man and deserved good health, regardless of the choices he made in his life.

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Trisha Torrey
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