By Gina McGalliardWhen La Jolla resident Mike Stevens was first diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, he found that most people he told of his condition immediately assumed he was a smoker.
“When I first meet people their first question is, ‘Do you smoke?’” Stevens said. Surprisingly, this even included physicians, one of whom asked him how much he had smoked, rather than if he had smoked. Stevens pointed out that similar stigmas don’t exist for other diseases, saying that, “If someone had heart disease, no one asks how much bacon you ate.”
“Sixty percent of people with lung cancer are former or nonsmokers,” said Stevens. “If we stopped all cigarette smoking today lung cancer would not go away in our lifetime.”
Lung cancer is also on the rise, killing more people than the next five cancers combined. In addition, 70 percent of cases are not diagnosed until late stages, resulting in extremely low survival rates. Only 15 percent of those with the disease survive overall, and people whose cancer was detected in stage four, as Stevens’ was, only have a survival rate of less than 5 percent.
Despite these alarming numbers, lung cancer receives very little funding in comparison to other cancers. While lung cancer receives only $1,400 per death, colon cancer receives $5,200, and prostate cancer gets $14,000. Stevens’ oncologist also told him it is extremely difficult for medical researchers to get funding for lung cancer research as opposed to other cancers.
Stevens attributes the lack of early detection with the lack of funding the disease receives, which can be traced to the misconception that most people with lung cancer got it by smoking. “There is a direct correlation between the funding and the survival rate,” Stevens said, noting the example of breast cancer, which used to be the number one killer of women until funding enabled early detection and survival to be much more common. Now, lung cancer kills twice as many women as breast cancer and three times as many men as prostate cancer.
Stevens hopes it is possible to change the stigma of lung cancer, since this has happened with other diseases. For instance, people used to feel that those with AIDS deserved it because they had unprotected sex or used drugs. But now AIDS receives more funding than most cancers do.
“One of the sayings we are using right now is that no one deserves lung cancer,” Stevens said.
While mammograms and colonoscopies exist for early detection of breast and colon cancer, there is no widespread mechanism for doing the same with lung cancer. Such a mechanism would surely lessen the death rate for lung cancer, as demonstrated by a program by the International Early Lung Cancer Action Program. People with a high risk for developing the disease were screened every year and their survival rate was 85 percent.
“If all these other cancers have early detection, why can’t we?” Stevens asked. “The cost of treatment in the early phase is less than half that in the late stage.”
Stevens strongly recommends that high-risk people get regular screenings. He told the story of a friend of his who received a body scan from another friend as a birthday present, and the scan revealed she had lung cancer. Had she not done the body scan, the cancer likely would not have been detected until the later stages.
Stevens also spends time in Washington D.C. and Sacramento lobbying politicians to give lung cancer more funding, trying to get bills passed on local, state and national levels. Recently he was trying to get a bill passed that would raise the price of cigarettes in order to raise money for lung cancer research, but was given “a flat-out no” by the governor’s office, which feels strongly about not having any new taxes.
The small number of survivors of lung cancer means that there are very few potential lobbyists for lung cancer awareness, which is part of the reason why Stevens is so passionate about being an activist. “Because I’m a survivor I can’t sit back. I’m on borrowed time right now, so I’ve got to give a little back,” he said. “What I’m doing for advocacy is not going to help me at all. I’m doing it for the people who are just getting diagnosed. And for my children, because now they are high risk.”
On how his life has been changed by his disease, Stevens said, “I’m busier now than when I owned my business. I have less free time. I never realized how good it feels to help other people. And at other times I want to chuck it because it’s so frustrating. I’m talking mostly about the politicians.”
For more information on early detection of lung cancer, visit www.screenforlungcancer.org. To donate or find out more about lung cancer, visit www.lungcanceralliance.org. Also, on the fourth Wednesday of every month, a lung cancer support group meets at the UCSD cancer center.