Monday, April 11, 2005

In this article, In a Judgmental World, She Was Ashamed of Getting Sick, the author writes about her mother who died of emphysema. She had been a heavy smoker, and felt shame about her death.

I wonder if this kind of shame is why lung cancer, or other lung diseases linked to smoking, gets far less public attention than other forms of cancer, like breast cancer and prostate cancer. It bothers me that when I tell people that my mother died of cancer, they often jump to the conclusion that it must have been breast cancer, even though far more people die every year of lung cancer than of breast cancer. And then when I tell them that it was lung cancer, they ask me if she was a smoker. Does it matter if she was a smoker? I wonder why people ask. Does it make them feel better somehow if the person was a smoker? Is it easier then to blame the person for her own death?

I ask too, when I hear that someone has lung cancer. Earlier this year, when a friend of mine died of lung cancer, I also wanted to know if he had been a smoker. It was disturbing to me - very disturbing - that he had not been a smoker. Since he wasn't a smoker, perhaps that meant that I - also not a smoker - might be vulnerable to lung cancer. It seems to me that being able to point to a definite cause - smoking - makes it easier for people to blame others who get lung cancer for their own illnesses, and simultaneously distance themselves from the sick person. It gives one a sense of having some control over one's death.

But should we gain this sense of control at the expense of shaming another human being? And what is more, what do we gain for ourselves by turning away from the fact that we will all die, from one thing or another, and that in the end, we don't have control over whether we will die?

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