When my wife began feeling chest pains and shortness of breath, we were stumped. Smita didn’t smoke, was healthy and active. By the time doctors finally diagnosed her condition — after some four months of tests, consultations and office visits — Smita was on the brink of stage IV lung cancer.
She died 15 months later. And in the decade since then, lung cancer has claimed the lives of thousands of our neighbors, relatives and friends. It is the most deadly cancer, taking more lives annually — an estimated 170,000 this year alone — than breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer combined. The reason, I believe, is rooted in bias.
We’ve marched to make breast cancer a survivable condition and we’ve turned the corner on prostate and other cancers. While millions of families can celebrate the success of these medical breakthroughs, we can’t yet say the same for lung cancer. So I’m holding out hope that someday I can.
As a senior executive at Cisco, I understand how daunting some technical challenges may be. But that shouldn’t deter us from taking action, and there’s no better time than now.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The truth is: The most important hurdle blocking progress toward a cure for lung cancer is the bias that blames lung cancer sufferers for their condition — the assumption that they brought it on themselves by smoking.
That’s the kind of thinking that kills. Because my wife didn’t smoke, her doctors didn’t think to pursue a lung cancer diagnosis until months after she first fell ill. This is precious time lost against a disease that gets progressively deadlier the longer it persists.
As you can well imagine, this is a personal cause for our family. My youngest son was a sophomore engineering major at Duke University when he lost his mother. This experience prompted him to switch to medicine, so he might prevent others from meeting the same fate.
Lung cancer is a silent killer, lurking in the shadows. It’s time we brushed aside the bias that is preventing us from giving this disease the attention it requires. Countless lives can be saved simply by providing earlier detection and diagnoses to patients. Helping doctors, especially those affiliated with community hospitals rather than large teaching hospitals, better understand and recognize the disease is a vital first step.
It’s worth adding that beyond the human toll, lung cancer has a huge economic toll as well. Some $39 billion in lost productivity in the United States can be attributed to lung cancer fatalities. This is more than the next four costliest cancers combined and accounts for more than a quarter of all productivity losses due to cancer.
During my education about lung cancer, I was fortunate enough to meet Bonnie Addario. You only have to meet Addario once to understand her passion. She rose through the ranks to become the rare female chief executive, and rarer still in the oil industry. But she was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer. Through a combination of grit, focus and a bit of luck, she beat her disease.
Roughly every three minutes someone in the United States is told he or she has lung cancer. But only a scant 16 percent of these individuals will be diagnosed in the earliest stages when the disease is most treatable. Bonnie saw the bias, lack of information, and hard choices lung cancer patients face. In response, she created the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation to help patients and spearhead research.
Americans have marched together to beat back other cancers, to render them treatable. It’s time we joined the fight against the deadliest cancer of them all, because lung cancer won’t stop claiming lives until we do. It means blowing away the bias that prevents important research and diagnostic work from being completed in a timely way. It means using the resources we already have to focus on the causes and treatments of the disease.
I’m in this fight because I lost the most important person in my life. Our goal is to make lung cancer a chronically managed disease by 2023. Standing in the way is the prejudice that lung cancer is unworthy of our total attention because it’s viewed as a smoker’s disease.
Pankaj Patel is executive vice president and chief development officer of Cisco Systems. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.