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The death of Donna Summer from lung cancer at 63 is a tragedy. Her family, her friends and all of us around the world who fell in love with her and her music have lost the wonderful artist who gave us the joyous disco beat and songs we will never forget.
When the initial news of Ms. Summer’s death only reported that she died of “cancer,” we immediately sensed that was code for lung cancer. I could imagine Donna sitting back in her chair in shock as she received the news - painful, horrible shock. How frightened she must have been. All the suffering she faced and her family faced. How they must have struggled to cope with the added burden of being asked - endlessly - if she smoked.
Such is the stigma of lung cancer. The blame and shame that comes with it follows victims even to their graves. Indeed, obituary writers for major newspapers have told us that family members of people who die of lung cancer do not want that cause of death listed.
This same stigma and the reaction to it have caused lung cancer research to be so severely underfunded that the five year survival rate is still only 15%. Most are diagnosed so late they die within a year. But the stigma is also blocking efforts to bring the now proven benefit of CT screening to those at high risk.
The public does not know that one in five new lung cancer patients never smoked and that a majority of them are women; that another 50% of new cases are former smokers and that many of them quit decades ago. They had no idea they were still at risk.
People are not being told the facts. Few realize that lung cancer causes more deaths each year than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers combined. Yet none of our government health agencies - and for that fact none of the big national lung and cancer organizations - have made lung cancer research and early detection a public health priority.
I do not know if Donna Summer did smoke, used to smoke, never smoked, or was exposed to 9/11 toxins as she thought might have happened. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Donna Summer did not deserve to die of lung cancer, and that no one deserves to die of lung cancer. Maybe ending the stigma will be part of her great legacy.