Women and lung cancer: Time to turn the tide

There will be more than 220,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011. They will be our brothers, sisters, grandparents, co-workers, closest friends. They will be our parents.Last year, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She's never smoked. That's a fact that I always feel obligated to share when talking about her diagnosis, but sincerely hope one day won't be such an entrenched part of the lung cancer conversation. Our family was shocked by the diagnosis and even more appalled to learn that lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer among both men and women, accounting for more than 1 in 4 cancer deaths. Surely, we thought, a cancer this prevalent and virulent - one that kills 80 percent more women than breast cancer - must receive significant government funding and public support. We were wrong.Women Paying a Fearsome PriceAs a daughter, my thoughts quickly turned to the more than 105,000 women who are diagnosed with lung cancer each year. This is a disease that kills more women annually than breast, ovarian and uterine cancers combined. Over the last several decades, women have come powerfully and effectively together to organize, mobilize and build critical public awareness and support for the diseases that threaten them most, particularly heart disease and breast cancer. With lung cancer diagnoses among women up six-fold since 1930, I couldn't understand why women had not applied the same conviction, energy and savvy to lung cancer. Then I looked at the numbers.Lung cancer is poised to take the lives of 71,000 women this year and up to now, there hasn't been much reason to be hopeful. The overall five-year survival rate lingers at 15 percent, where it has been for decades. While new treatments and funding have propelled the survival rates for breast cancer to 90 percent, lung cancer remains in an unfortunate area of catch up.With so few survivors, it's difficult to build and sustain a movement. And for those lucky enough to survive this dreadful disease, a sense of community can be hard to come by. Rebecca's TaleFor my friend Rebecca, who was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 28, living with a lung cancer diagnosis has been an isolating experience. "Like many Americans, I was clueless when it came to lung cancer," she says."Every October, for years, I would dutifully pin pink ribbons on my bags and participate in breast cancer walks in solidarity for women. But then when I was diagnosed with lung cancer, I learned that it kills far more people than any other cancer (breast, colon, ovarian, melanoma, brain and leukemia combined), and there were hardly any walks, ribbons or support groups out there. I felt alone." Since my mom's diagnosis, I have spoken with so many women who echo Rebecca's feelings of isolation and loneliness. Lung cancer is a disease that has never received public attention or research dollars in proportion to its prevalence or virulence. Precious little is said or written about it. The result is that the most lethal cancer killer of all runs rampant. Together, We Can Change This Determined to turbo-charge the lung cancer discussion, my family recently launched a nationwide educational campaign – Leaders of the Lung Cancer Free World – intended to generate greater public awareness and understanding of lung cancer. With three non-profit partners – the CHEST Foundation of the American College of Chest Physicians, the National Lung Cancer Partnership and Uniting Against Lung Cancer – the Leaders campaign aims to focus public attention on this unrelenting killer that affects smokers and non-smokers alike. The campaign has four distinct target issues: women, political leadership, the smoking stigma and general public awareness. There are many ways to get involved. You can sign a petition encouraging the President and Congress to declare lung cancer a national health crisis, donate to one of three partner organizations, ask your representatives to support the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act, follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter or take a pledge to stop smoking.Anyway you slice it, lung cancer is a national health crisis requiring our attention. Over the next five years, more than 1,000,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer. They will be our mothers, fathers, sisters, grandparents, coworkers, closest friends. Together, we can help save many of them.Arielle Densen is a co-founder of Leaders of the Lung Cancer Free World, a lung cancer advocacy group, and created the James Sivartsen Prize in Pediatric Cancer Research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For the past six years, Arielle has served as a wish granter for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.