As we get ready to turn our calendars to December, we reflect on the passing month of November, and its designation as Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Throughout this past month, advocacy groups and organizations have pushed to raise awareness and educate readers en masse about the deadly illness. As the leading cause of death from all cancers, lung cancer remains a tough battle to fight for patients. According to the CDC, lung cancer affects 215,951 people in the United States, with nearly 75% of all patients succumbing to their illness. It is important during the month of November to not only to focus on lung cancer, but on respiratory illness as whole – such as COPD and mesothelioma.
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer can refer to both small-cell and non-small cell lung carcinoma, which is characterized by the uncontrollable growth of cells in the lung tissue. While tobacco smoking and secondhand smoke are by-and-large the primary causes of the disease, heredity and environmental factors can also contribute to the diagnosis. Radon, a radioactive gas found in the soil, and other airborne pollutants, like arsenic and diesel exhaust, are also known causes.
The symptoms of lung cancer are chest tightness, shortness of breath, chronic cough, coughing up blood, and fatigue. Once a biopsy is performed and the cancer is officially diagnosed, patients can expect to undergo a regimen of advanced treatment, but there remains no definitive cure. It is important to note that prognosis varies highly based on the stage of the cancer—which generally dictates the type of treatment a patient can expect to receive. Currently, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, and surgical removal of tissue are the most prevalent forms of care.
Advanced Respiratory Illness
While the awareness of lung cancer is widely known, many other serious illnesses lack cognizance. Two of the most rampant respiratory diseases aside from lung cancer are Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, commonly known as COPD, and mesothelioma. COPD is an umbrella term for several different ailments, the most common being emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Like lung cancer, COPD is most commonly caused by smoking, but many environmental hazards can cause the illness. Air quality issues, such as pollution and chemical fumes, can cause the disease. There is no cure for COPD, and most patients are faced with progression of the illness as they age, many times causing death.
The exposure to asbestos, a silicate mineral formerly used in construction, has also proven to be extremely dangerous to human health. The material is known to break and fragment, creating small particle dust that is inhaled. Once inhaled, the accumulation of asbestos dust settles in the lining of the organs indefinitely, where it can begin to cause illness. Asbestos is most commonly linked to mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer. Mesothelioma most commonly affects the lining of the lungs, but can also affect other areas of the body. Prognosis for the disease is very poor, as most patients are faced with 12-21 months of life expectancy. Treatment of the disease generally consists of a combination of radiation, chemotherapy, and sometimes, surgical removal of the affected area.
How to Promote Wellness
While lung cancer, COPD, and mesothelioma all pose very serious health risks, there are steps we can take to continue to maintain health and wellness. The most important step to take to ensure lung health is to stop smoking today. Tobacco smoke accounts for 85% of all lung cancer diagnoses, and can greatly exacerbate the severity of any other lung disease. Steps to ensure respiratory safety on the job site, especially for construction workers, can greatly reduce the chances of exposure to carcinogens. Buildings constructed before 1980 in the United States run the risk of asbestos contamination; if you suspect your home may contain asbestos, do not remove it yourself – use a licensed professional. Above all, a continued healthy lifestyle and exercise can safeguard your well-being, and keep you at your best for years to come.
The holiday season always reminds us how hard it is to shop for certain people. Whether you’re roaming around Target or scanning page after page on Amazon, the same questions cross your mind. “Oh god, what was that awful band Uncle Bill loves?” Or “Your sister’s favorite color is purple, right?” What’s even harder than shopping for the not so close friend or family member is finding the perfect gift for someone suffering from a major illness. You want to help any way you can. You want to make the person feel better, hoping your gift will somehow tell the cancer to go away. As an 11-year survivor of a difficult cancer with no cure, called mesothelioma, I’d like to share my most memorable gifts and gestures I received during my battle with cancer. Hopefully, my personal stories and suggestions provide guidance to anyone struggling to find that perfect gift!
1. Gear the gift towards the individual, not the illness.
Try to distract the person of their illness, even if it’s for a brief time. Maybe you grew up together and have a bunch of pictures from your childhood. Make up a scrapbook filled with silly pictures, fond memories, and a few stories of your favorite times together! It’ll be sure to put a smile on the person’s face and get their mind off their illness.
Gift cards were also a huge help. I had friends who gave grocery store gift cards and offered to take me shopping–anything to lighten the load was extremely impactful. The people I used to work with all pitched in and sent me a gift card to Nordstrom and said, “We know you feel terrible. Go shopping, It’ll make you feel better.” I did just that and guess what, I did feel better! It made me feel normal just knowing that they thought of me, and it wasn’t cancer-related. To this day I still keep in touch with an old client who paid my car payment for two months. Not having to worry about where the money came from made life that much easier during a really stressful time, not just for me but my husband as well.
Gifting time to friends undergoing cancer treatment to do their holiday shopping, run errands, wrap their gifts, decorate their home (e.g., Christmas tree, lights) is very much appreciated, says Sandra L. San Miguel, MS, program director of the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities at the National Cancer Institute.
2. Avoid food-like gift baskets.
To be honest, I didn’t use anything out of those giant snack-filled gift baskets.It’s a nice gesture, and extremely sweet, but I wasn’t able to eat any of the food because I was so sick. The cookies looked great, but the smell made me sick to my stomach. Caffeine wasn’t allowed, so some of the tea was off-limits. I felt bad not being able to use much from these expensive baskets filled with goodies, but my body couldn’t handle them physically. On the bright side, my husband enjoyed some of the items!
With that said, gift baskets can still be a great idea; however, only if they contain meaningful gifts, such as journals, coloring pencils/pens, hand sanitizer, candies (to get rid of the awful chemo taste), puzzle books, coloring books, books with motivational sayings, and favorite magazines, says San Miguel. “These baskets are great as later on they can be used to keep by them with their medicines, TV remote control, books, tissues, snacks, agenda with med appointments, etc.”
3. Donate to a special cause in the person’s name.
A former client of mine donated to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation in my name, and that to me meant more than anything. Getting a letter from MARF saying that a donation was made in my name was truly special, and something I’ll never forget. It’s a really rewarding experience donating to an organization or charity connected to the individual–plus it helps so many others also suffering from the same illness! It was my first introduction to the foundation that has become an important part of my life.
The key to giving this holiday season is to remember the person who’s sick is still the same person. They may have chemo overwhelming their body, and energy levels at an all time low, but they’re still the friend or loved one that you’ve always known. Their interests, hobbies, and passions aren’t lost when diagnosed; rather, they use those same sources of positivity to help make their fight more tolerable. Distract them, help them, and most importantly, provide hope.
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