I am 29 and I have lung cancer – No, I do not smoke

I am 29 and I have lung cancer. And, before you ask: No, I do not smoke, have never smoked, and most certainly will NEVER start smoking so long as these sturdy lungs of mine can breathe. Cigarettes, as well as any of their close cousins [e.g. vape pens, e-cigarettes, cigars, or pretty much any object stuffed with injurious chemicals intended for bodily consumption], I have always found worth strenuously avoiding like the plague, or that irritable uncle of yours who corners you at family gatherings only to lecture you on society’s innumerable shortcomings, or the regrettable state of our politics, or the lackluster quality of today’s music, or…well, you get the point. You’ll have to forgive the acerbity, dear reader, as the general public – perhaps, even you – have succumbed to a dreadful misconception about me and others suffering from this horrible affliction. Remember this: You need not have smoked to get lung cancer, and that is a truth even the mighty gods of Olympus cannot impugn. Exposure to radon gas, air pollution, second-hand smoke, and, if recent research is to be believed, even third-hand smoke, are just some of the ways you can get lung cancer. More infuriating still, smoking is the leading preventable cause of most cancers[1] in the United States; however, when some unfortunate sap gets hit with a bladder cancer diagnosis, this is usually met with unhurried expressions of sympathy rather than, as is the case with lung cancer patients, an on-the-spot examination of the troubled victim’s [ugh, do I hate that word!] “history” of smoking.

You may be surprised by this. Appalled, even. Don’t be. It’s happened more times than I care to recount. Now, you’re probably wondering how someone like me – a healthy, physically active [I’m an avid runner], 29-year-old never-smoker – got lung cancer, right? Beats me. What you may not know is that in most patients with a similar profile [young, healthy, never-smoker], lung cancer is often discovered at a more advanced stage, when treatment options are few-and-far between compared to when the disease is caught at an earlier stage. In my case, I was completely asymptomatic. I had no difficulty breathing, my organs were functioning as they should, and I felt no discomfort whatsoever. My primary care physician even once joked during a follow-up appointment to discuss the results of my annual physical that I was “medically boring.” [Well, doc, you should see me now!] Until, of course, that fateful day in June of last year when I felt the left side of my body seize up while walking back to my office at work. I was later to discover that the cause of this seizure was an acorn-sized tumor that had metastasized to my brain from the primary tumor site in my right lung. You could imagine my surprise when I was given my diagnosis. Time immediately stood still in that moment. Like raging river waters that had broken through a dam, thoughts came flooding in: How did this happen? Where do I go from here? Could I have done anything to prevent this? And, most disturbingly of all, did I do anything to DESERVE this?

Prevention. We know the most effective way to treat patients is to not have to treat them at all. Despite some of my friends’ and family’s’ smoking habits, I never took up smoking and knew I never would. I ate right, barring the occasional late-night excursion to Taco Bell, exercised regularly (I still do), and did all I could to maintain my “medically boring” reputation. Sadly, it appears, that making all the right moves in life does not always guarantee you’ll come out on top. Luck, sometimes, plays an even greater role in the affairs of our species more than we care to admit. Let my story serve as a prickly and uncomfortable reminder of that fact.

You may be further tempted to ask: Could I have done anything to catch this disease at an earlier, more manageable stage? If only. What’s unfortunate is that, given my medical profile, the tests presently available to screen for lung cancer in patients for preventative or early treatment purposes would not have been available to me. Why? Well, among the eligibility criteria governing which patients are considered “high-risk” and should have annual low-dose CT screenings, the American Cancer Society lists the following: (1) persons  “aged 55 to 74 years and in fairly good health,” (2) persons who “currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years,” and (3) persons who “have at least a 30-pack-year smoking history.”[2] Strike 1. Strike 2. Strike 3. I’M OUT! What about an X-ray, you ask? Not quite as effective as a CT scan. Not to mention, when I was hospitalized in June of last year, an X-ray of my chest was done, and this revealed absolutely nothing; the tumor was not quite large or dense enough for it to be picked up by the machine. And, though liquid blood biopsies are a novel and promising new screening mechanism employed by oncologists today to detect early signs of cancer, I would still have not been eligible to receive such testing for the same reasons that excluded me from receiving a low-dose CT screening; namely, I wasn’t considered “high-risk.” And that, to use the language of my gambling cohorts, is what we would call, a wash. Or, as my Francophilic friends would hurry to proclaim, C’est la vie.

However, I do not want to give you the wrong impression, dear reader. I’m not writing you in order to elicit your sympathy or pity. The world has no shortage of stories like mine, and I count myself not as possessing any special status far and above theirs. Though engendering a world in which love, kindness, and mutual understanding become ever more ubiquitous is a noble goal worth pursuing, my more immediate aim is simply to bridge what I and countless others see as a glaring gap in our public consciousness about lung cancer – its causes, its prevalence, and its victims. I bet you didn’t know that lung cancer is the LEADING cancer-killer in the United States, did you? Also, I can guess with near-to-absolute certainty that you didn’t know lung cancer kills MORE WOMEN every year than breast, uterine and ovarian cancer COMBINED. In fact, it is fairly evident lung cancer has no sex-specific predilections when it comes to choosing its victims, killing more men and women than any other cancer in the United States. I suppose, then, that in light of these findings, you’d be surprised (aghast, perhaps) to hear that lung cancer research garners the FEWEST dollars every year than any other cancer research initiative does? I can just picture you now, sitting there with furrowed brow, ponderously searching for an explanation that would account for such a depressingly large funding disparity. It’s quite simple, really: Lung cancer patients are seen as “deserving” their fate because they knew the risks when they began smoking. Of course, you need not be a master logician to see just how patently absurd this belief is. However, since I absolutely relish tearing apart fallacious arguments (my B.A. is in philosophy, after all), I would humbly ask that you allow me this one indulgence.

First, as was already made clear at the beginning, you need not have smoked to get lung cancer. In fact, as the rate of smoking continues to decline, a greater proportion of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients are younger, healthy, never-smokers like me. To edify you further: 60-65% of all newly diagnosed lung cancer cases are amongst people who have never smoked or who quit smoking some time ago. Estimated 10-15% of newly diagnosed lung cancer cases are amongst never-smokers. Sadly, however, the smoking stigma persists, and it is this stigma that needs quashing – and fast.

Secondly, let us dispense with the morally confused and abhorrent belief that anyone “deserves” cancer. Cancer patients are human beings, many of them with families and friends whom they hold dear, and who harbor dreams, goals, and aspirations much like your own. On all accounts, they are neither less nor more human than you are. It smacks as the height of arrogance to believe that any one mortal can sit in judgment of another, consigning them to a fate not of their own willful choosing. And, yes, while those who chose to smoke knew the risks they were assuming, it is also crucial to try to understand the prevailing contextual factors that would explain why such a deleterious habit was adopted to begin with. Passing judgment against those whose lives we may not fully understand makes us into moral monsters, not paragons of virtue. Furthermore, can any morally serious person believe that a mistake, once made, forever forecloses any opportunity for personal redemption? Indeed, is it not this opportunity for redemption that is the sine qua non of the virtue of forgiveness? By the way, you need not be of the religious variety to believe in the power of forgiveness. I, myself, am not particularly religious, though I do harbor spiritual beliefs of my own over which no religious organization or tradition can claim an exclusive monopoly. In short, if we cannot presume to know in their entirety the circumstances that would explain people’s poor past decision-making, it would be just as presumptuous of us to think that we can divine a person’s future chances at redemption or self-transformation. To think otherwise surely taxes the credulity of the credulous, and any person who feigns such omniscience should be treated with the scorn and ridicule that such claims rightfully deserve.

With that said, I suppose you have fully anticipated the crucially important point at which I’ve been driving with these (hopefully) thought-provoking moral queries and observations. If not, permit me to spell it out for you in language both unambiguous and emphatic: If we cannot justifiably rob one of our fellow mortal brethren of the chance to right past wrongs, to seek forgiveness (and, by extension, redemption), or to simply improve upon who they were in the hopes of achieving the best version of themselves, which is indisputably the object of all of our life’s exertions, then why should we allow cancer to do so? Let us not be so quick to heed the Siren call of fatalism, tempting though it be. The fatalistic attitude, which dismisses as un-malleable the circumstances of human existence, is something we must forcefully repudiate, and not just because it traffics in fabrications, but because it is crippling to the human spirit – a spirit that has made possible so many brilliant, innovative, and important achievements our species can lay claim to. If our species is ever to claim victory against such a historically cunning and formidable foe as cancer, than we must not let this spirit wane. To do otherwise would be to admit defeat, and defeat is most certainly not an option.

Ok, enough moralizing, lest I dissuade you from engaging in that introspection, which, I hope, my own ruminations put to paper on the topic of my own diagnosis provoke in you. If I have failed in that – if I have not sufficiently convinced you of the undeniable importance of self-reflection and the critical need to challenge unremittingly your underlying preconceptions, presuppositions, and prejudices – than, I’m afraid, people like me will continue to suffer needlessly under an unforgiving and confused stigma. Nevertheless, I have hope that, as Abraham Lincoln put it so poetically during his legendary address to those assembled at Gettysburg in 1863, that the “better angels of our nature” will prevail in the end.   

In truth, I take immense comfort in knowing that it is the untrammeled innovativeness of our species, together with our ability to remain hopeful during the darkest and bleakest of times, that will lead us with meteoric propulsion towards a cure for cancer of all types. Indeed, I do not think it exaggerated to claim that there has never been a better time to have cancer – heaven forbid you should get it. And this is not simply because of the promising new developments in conventional treatment options that we hear touted by the medical industry. No. We are at the beginning of a new epoch in the way cancer is understood; specifically, with respect to what causes it, and, thus, how it can be more effectually prevented and treated. Thanks to the unflagging efforts of pioneering medical professionals like Dr. Thomas Siegfried and Dr. Jason Fung (just to name two working professionals on a very long roster of professionals) and fastidious investigative journalists like Travis Christofferson, we have come to understand that our previous conceptualization of cancer as a genetic – or exclusively genetic – disease is woefully, indeed, fatally misguided.

In fact, as Dr. Siegfried and others have argued, cancer is a disease caused by a disruption in the normal metabolic functioning of our cells, and the genetic mutations conventional practitioners make haste in detecting are simply the effects (not the cause of) such metabolic dysfunction. New evidence continues to be amassed in support of this hypothesis, while pre-existing evidence thought to support the conventionally embraced genetic causal theory of cancer has been shown to be more supportive of the metabolic causal theory of cancer. As Dr. Siegfried and others have pointed out, when hundreds, if not thousands, of several different mutations can occur in even one solid tumor, focusing all our efforts on developing tailor-made therapies that may be able to target one of those mutations, and for a limited period of time, is to make poor use of what few resources and limited time we have in combatting this nefariously wily enemy we call cancer. If the metabolic theory of cancer has any credence – and I believe that it does – than a re-calibration of how we spend our precious time and resources when it comes to fighting cancer is in order.

For example, it may strike you as a surprise to discover that there is evidence to suggest that several re-purposed medications, such as the anti-diabetic drug Metformin, have anti-carcinogenic properties. These repurposed drugs are extremely mild in their toxicity, and are far cheaper to obtain than several conventional chemotherapeutic drugs (but don’t tell BigPharma I said that). It is pathbreaking discoveries, or, in some cases, re-discoveries like these that have been made by organizations, such as my virtual oncology platform CareOncology.com, that are providing cancer patients with a newfound sense of hope where none may have previously existed. Additionally, other unconventional, but no less effective, therapies, such as high-dose IV vitamin C, have been shown to yield great promise as either monotherapies or adjunctive therapies[3].

Furthermore, simple changes to our dietary and eating habits – from the elimination of processed foods and sugar, to increasing our consumption of healthy alternatives, together with time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting and regular exercise – can all serve as effective weapons that you can store in your cancer-fighting arsenal. Uncovering all these latest developments in cancer research, I can honestly say, can be attributed to my voracious appetite for new information and unchecked intellectual curiosity – or, more simply put, to my inability, as my mother would say, to “sit still.” Those have always been two of my greatest assets, but they are assets, I believe, every cancer patient will need should they want to defeat this most cunning and devious of foes.

In some form or another, I have adopted the therapies, prescriptions, and practices mentioned above in my own life, as well as several more the details of which I will spare you (for now). However, I believe I would be remiss if I did not impress upon you the incalculable importance of supporting and maintaining a happy mental life, whether you have cancer or are seeking to keep it at bay (especially, if you’re trying to keep it away). Indeed, I believe that my failure to grasp this fundamental importance contributed, in one way or another, to my getting cancer.  As the influential philosopher Sam Harris once remarked, our minds are all we have, and that is undoutedly true. Though our understanding of the nature of consciousness leaves much to be desired, it is clear on virtually every account that our physical life is largely an extension of our mental life. More precisely put, our physical life is conditioned by our mental life, as the famed epigeneticist Bruce Lipton reminds us in his wonderful book entitled “The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, and Miracles.”

To bring the point squarely into focus: A happy life suggests a mind that is unburdened of needless complications, indecision, stress, anxiety, and confusion, and can think about and comprehend things lucidly. Unfortunately, much about our contemporary lifestyles makes it all but impossible to cultivate a happy mental life. Social media sites vie for our uninterrupted attention, even as they contribute to the shortening of our individual and collective attention spans. Cable news networks shower us incessantly with one “news alert” after another, with each new alert more terribly inconsequential than the one that preceded it. And advertisers bombard us relentlessly with suggestions that we should all purchase the latest cellphone, luxury vehicle, or what-have-you in order to fill the void we feel deep inside us – a void, ironically enough, that is of the advertising industry’s very own self-serving creation. The stress induced by trying to “keep up with it all” is, I firmly believe, what is partly driving cancer to overtake heart disease as the leading cause of death on the planet. 

That is why I’ve decided to cut myself loose from these harmful distractions, and it’s why I think you should do so as well. Instead of feverishly checking your Twitter feed for the latest musings of a famous know-nothing, crack open a book on a subject you find interesting. I’m currently reading a brilliant biography on one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume. Unlike mindlessly scrolling through my social media feed, with the turn of each page, my mind does not suffer from diminishing returns. Rather than watching your politically-preferred cable news network of-choice, turn off that television and use that time to find a quiet place to meditate – to placate your mind, not to agitate it further with gratuitous noise, contrived conflict, and vacuous commentary. Lastly, find it in yourself to learn to love yourself. Without question, I’ve been characterized as somewhat of a perfectionist by those who know me best; however, in my drive to be the best, I was often my harshest critic. It was soon after I received my cancer diagnosis that I realized this was a terrible mistake. The biggest cause of the stress in my life came not from the outside, but from within.  I regret not realizing that earlier on. So, try not to be so hard on yourself. Perfection at the expense of finding that internal peace that makes for a happy life is too high a price to pay. So, refrain from paying it.

In conclusion, I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy (but, hopefully, not too busy) day to read my story. I hope it has aroused your curiosity and given you pause to reflect on some of those pre-conceived notions about cancer – especially, lung cancer – that you may have harbored prior to reading this article. Furthermore, I hope you use my story – improbable, though it may sound – to counter what are the altogether pernicious and prevalent misconceptions about lung cancer patients discussed earlier. Remember, if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer; it’s as simple as that, so consider a prevention strategy noted above. Now, before I dispatch with another one of my moralizing tirades and risk losing the progress I’ve made up until now, I’ll end it here. Go forth, and remember, that your personal well-being is the only thing of any real consequence in this life. And, in case you are wondering, I am thriving 18 months since that difficult day in June, and, for now, all is in remission. Rest assured; I intend to keep things that way.

With Love,

Thomas

[1] “Cancers Linked to Tobacco Use Make up 40% of All Cancers Diagnosed in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Nov. 2016, www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p1110-vital-signs-cancer-tobacco.html.

[2] “Lung Cancer Screening Guidelines.” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/health-care-professionals/american-cancer-society-prevention-early-detection-guidelines/lung-cancer-screening-guidelines.html.

[3] “A Combo of Fasting plus Vitamin C Is Effective for Hard-to-Treat Cancers, Study Shows.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 12 May 2020, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200512151941.htm.