“Well, she was a smoker when she was younger,” my grandmother said to me during one of our infrequent phone calls, only shortly after my mother had been admitted to the hospital for what would become her final visit.
Sure, just like me, and like millions of other people who live their lives to ripe old ages, my mother had once been a smoker. She also still had an AOL email address, drove like a maniac, and pronounced “burrito” weird, but, in discussions about her impending death, her collegiate nicotine habit didn’t seem much more relevant than any of those other details. She was dying, there wasn’t anything we could do about it, but even those who loved her most were still trying to find somewhere to place the blame.
Even among groups of logical, generally compassionate people, when talking about death or serious illness, there often seems to be a desperate need to play Web MD with the reasons behind the disease, and decide which precautions to take to ensure our own future safety when navigating the world of the sick. Even in my own life, after having people insinuate that my punctured intestine may have been the result of overly vigorous anal sex or an eating disorder, I still find myself, a person whose first line of defense against an unwashed cut is licking it and has tried to cure food poisoning with whiskey, still often feigning expertise when it comes to other peoples’ medical problems. Skin cancer? Should have reapplied your sunscreen more often. Herpes? Should have worn a Hazmat suit like everyone else! Diabetes? Don’t care what kind! Shame, fatty, shaaaaaaame!
The Lung Cancer Alliance’s recent “No One Deserves to Die” campaign has been playing on just these ideas with tongue-in-cheek advertising that’s popped up recently in a number of major U.S. cities. The ads, which bear inflammatory slogans including, “Hipsters Deserve to Die” and “Cat Lovers Deserve to Die,” have garnered some major media attention as part of the group’s larger mission to destigmatize lung cancer, which many still see as a disease based on personal fault.
Much like other diseases that many people mistakenly pass off as the end result of an individual’s weak will in the face of overwhelming vice, lung cancer is often treated with an attitude that blames the sick, rather than treating them with the compassion they deserve.
Just last week, a well-intentioned friend of mine, who works as a health blogger, wrote a post about a family member who was newly in remission from lung cancer. While much of the post explained her gratitude for her relative’s current good health, it still contained much of the rhetoric the Lung Cancer Alliance, and most sick people who just don’t want to be blamed for every bad decision they may have made, strive to combat. Her relative hadn’t smoked a cigarette! He rarely even microwaved his food! He ate organic meat! In her eyes, he didn’t deserve to die, and because he took precautions against it, he didn’t.
This is my mom:
She was weird and she smoked and she didn’t always know her right from her left and she ate her food with chopsticks and she didn’t deserve to die.