Arielle Densen says her mother died of lung cancer in July 2013 after a "courageous and inspiring fight."
Courtesy Arielle Densen
Arielle Densen says her mother died of lung cancer in July 2013 after a "courageous and inspiring fight."

Story highlights

Lung Cancer Awareness Month doesn't get attention it deserves, Arielle Densen says

One in five women diagnosed with lung cancer never smoked

Some 108,000 women are diagnosed with lung cancer each year

Editor’s Note: Arielle Densen is co-founder of Leaders of the Lung Cancer Free World, an organization dedicated to increasing public awareness and understanding of lung cancer.

CNN —  

For the 108,000 women who are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, Lung Cancer Awareness Month can be a lonely time of year. Lung cancer kills nearly twice as many women as breast cancer. But November, unlike October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, goes practically unnoticed: no sea of ribbons, no colored NFL cleats, no national monuments aglow in pink.

Breast cancer is a terrible disease. My grandmother fought and beat it twice, benefiting from innovative treatments that have propelled five-year survival rates to 90%. But the five-year survival rate for lung cancer has hovered around 16% for decades. And for someone like my mom, who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, the survival rate is an appallingly low 4%.

An indiscriminate killer, lung cancer takes more lives annually than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers combined. The disease has not generally received the public attention or research dollars in proportion to its devastating lethality. Lung cancer receives just $1,442 in federal research funds per death, compared with $26,398 for breast cancer and $13,419 for prostate cancer according to an NIH study. Factor in private donations, and the funding gap becomes even more staggering.

Often portrayed as a “smoker’s disease,” the majority of those diagnosed with lung cancer are former smokers or have never smoked at all. And while smoking history shouldn’t matter as nicotine is highly addictive, all lung cancer patients face the same unrelenting stigma.

My mom never smoked – in fact, studies show one in five women diagnosed with lung cancer never smoked – and so her lingering, months-long cough didn’t trigger any red flags. In fact, her doctors were certain she had pneumonia. That is until her CT scan came back showing the mass in her lung. An otherwise healthy, vibrant, beautiful woman, my mom was given less than a year to live.

Thanks to advancements in targeted therapies, my mom survived – thrived, in many respects – for more than 40 months. She lived long enough to walk me down the aisle, attend my youngest brother’s high school graduation, watch my dad make a lasagna from scratch and fulfill a lifetime wish to hike the hills of Sedona and visit the Grand Canyon.

But in July 2013, after an unbelievably courageous and inspiring fight, my mom passed away. She was 59.

It’s impossible to describe adequately how special my mom was. She was incredibly caring, equanimous, brave and nonjudgmental. She possessed patience and calmness so rarely encountered – and in short supply in a family full of strong personalities. She was the ballast that kept our family upright and moving forward.

While lung cancer robbed my family of an unbelievably special mom and spouse, there is so much we can do to ensure happier endings for other lung cancer patients and their families.

Whether you are a lung cancer survivor, caregiver, advocate or just someone who wants to join the fight, there is much we can do to bring our country’s No. 1 cancer killer out of the shadows.

• Visit Uniting Against Lung Cancer, Free to Breathe, the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation or the LUNGevity Foundation for great resources, local events and patient support groups.

• Write a letter to your local newspaper, urging greater public awareness or encouraging corporate sponsors to step up in support of the lung cancer fight.

• Join the growing #lcsm (lung cancer social media) community on Twitter.

• If you are in a high-risk group – a heavy long-term smoker – see your doctor about CT screening.

Sadly, over the next five years, more than 1 million Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer. They will be our mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, co-workers and closest friends. Together, we can help them.