House and Home,  Western Pennsylvania

“Removing Myself from the Narrative”

I just changed my Primary Care Physician (PCP). I have nothing against my former PCP. I only switched because the prior PCP’s office location made it really inconvenient for me to take off time from work for appointments. This new PCP is a very short walk from my workplace.

As one does with a new PCP, I gave my new PCP and the staff my family medical history.

The new PCP said, “You said that your mother just passed away from breast cancer?”

I said, “No. She had LUNG cancer. And she never smoked.”

The PCP said, “Oh, I’m very sorry. Did your father smoke?”

“No,” I said.

My brand-new PCP seemed very surprised by this.

Neither of my parents smoked. Yet my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 63 and she passed away this past October, two days after her 64th birthday.

No judgment on people who DO smoke. I loved and respected my paternal grandmother very much. She smoked for decades. She smoked until the year that she passed away in her late 70’s with no cancer diagnosis. Several other family members DID pass away from lung cancer after they smoked for decades.

But here’s the thing: the narrative when I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s was that we kids could get cancer IF we used tobacco products. My elementary school science teacher lit a cigarette and set it between fake cotton lungs so that we could watch the fake lungs darken.

My elementary, junior high, and high school health education was like a morality play: if you do A, then B will happen to you. If you do X, then Y will happen to you. This was the narrative.

Me watching my mom die “quickly” of lung cancer when she was in her early 60’s was NEVER part of this narrative.

Mom ate several servings of vegetables and dairy products each day. She watched her weight. She took vitamins. She rarely drank. She took walks. She didn’t have any of the unhealthy lifestyle habits that my “morality play” health education warned me against.

So when Mom died, I tried to shape this to fit into my narrative.

I blamed my paternal grandmother for smoking in front of our family. Even though my grandmother lived 60 miles away from us and we saw her about once a month. (To be clear, I no longer feel this way.)

I also blamed my older paternal family members for not “stepping up” and insisting that Grandma not smoke in front of the family. (Again, to be clear, I no longer feel this way.)

This is such an easy solution.

I mean, even my new doctor immediately asked me if I had a family member who DID smoke.

And yet – something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Nothing about the “official narrative” sits well with me.

After Mom got sick, I learned that lung cancer is actually really common among non-smokers and never-smokers.

Also, lung cancer receives a fraction of the research funding that other cancers receive.

I’m not going to regurgitate a bunch of statistics. However, I learned some of these stats from Lung Cancer’s Stigma Stymies Progress” by Bonnie Addario.

I posted today because the narrative with which I grew up is incomplete and dangerous.

I didn’t mention this yet, but Mom lived right in the City of Pittsburgh for the first two decades of her life. This was in the 50’s – 70’s. Before the steel industry collapsed. I member visiting her childhood home in the 80’s and smelling sulfur.

Did living in Pittsburgh actually give Mom cancer?

If so, is the Pittsburgh area truly a healthier place to live now?

I ask these questions, even though they don’t actually fit the narrative.

I don’t think that we fully understand the effects of the air around us. I’m frustrated that even now, people are trying to roll back the environmental protections that have made our air clean over the past few decades.

What can we do to help ensure that future generations breath cleaner air?

What can we do to help cancer research proceed without stigmas?

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