Lung cancer doesn’t just kill smokers — The story of Jill Costello

Chris Ballard had an excellent article in this week’s Sports Illustrated. (Normally, I’m not a big fan of Chris Ballard’s stuff, some of it I find kind of trite, but this was his best article yet.).

Ballard wrote about a young coxswain for the University of California, Jill Costello, who led her rowing team to a Pac-10 championship, and to the national championship meet, while battling lung cancer.

I knew as soon as I started reading the article how it was going to end. Lung cancer has one of the lowest survival rates. Why? Part of the reason is because not a lot of research dollars go into lung cancer as compared to other kinds of cancer. Why? Because lung cancer has a stigma. Because many people still assume anyone who gets lung cancer deserves it.

Jill Costello was one of the 20 percent of women who get lung cancer who are non-smokers. About 15 percent of the people, male and female, who get lung cancer are non-smokers. Some studies have suggested that lung cancer is genetic. If you have a certain gene, and you smoke, there is a very high likelihood you are going to get lung cancer. If you don’t have the gene and smoke, you will probably never get lung cancer — but you will still get all the heart disease and COPD and other kinds of cancer smoking causes. If you have the gene and don’t smoke, you are at increased risk for lung cancer — not as much as if you smoked — but still an increased risk. Jill probably had the gene.

Jill battled her illness, and, more dramatically, the myriad side-effects of the chemotherapy, while continuing to compete for the Cal rowing team. It was a heart-wrenching article for me, having watched a parent go through this 30 years ago.

Like I said, I knew the story would end a certain way. Cal did not win the national championship. They came in fourth, and a month after the national championships, Jill died at the age of 23.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate when I started getting involved in tobacco issues is how much stigma there is attached to lung cancer; how many times people with lung cancer have to answer the question, “are you a smoker?” I’ve since gone to great lengths to avoid attaching blame to smokers who get lung cancer. It isn’t there fault they took up a bad habit in their teens that turned out to be physically addicting. We all did dumb things in our teen years, but most of us can laugh about it. A smoker trying to quit, or a smoker with cancer, it’s not a laughing matter when they look back and say, “Why did I start smoking when I was 15?”

So, all I ask is if you know someone with lung cancer, just don’t ask them, “are you a smoker?”