Shadow on Your Chest X-Ray? Welcome to Groundhog Day

This article will take a little long to unfold, but, hey, it's winter. What else do you have to do?

February 2nd is Groundhog Day -- the appendix of national holidays. No one will scurry to send last-minute holiday cards, no traditional greetings will be exchanged, turkeys can sleep in, banks will stay open, and you will get your mail.

What will happen is that members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club will make their annual sojourn to Gobblers Knob outside of town. Their mission: to ascertain if their beloved and money-making cash hog, Punxsutawney Phil, sees his shadow. No shadow means the end of winter is at hand; see a shadow and winter has six more weeks to go. Then, hundreds of TV meteorologists across the U.S. will file their obligatory non-sensical and barely amusing reports -- demeaned, if you think about it, by the implicit message that weather forecasting is so easy, even a rodent can do it.

The One Good Thing

Perhaps the best thing to come out of Groundhog Day besides sold out rooms at the Hotel Punxsutawney is the eponymously named movie starring Bill Murray.

In the funny and surprisingly poignant 1993 comedy, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-absorbed and acerbic TV weatherman dragooned, once again, to cover the annual Groundhog Day non-event event in Punxsutawney, PA. A blizzard strands Phil and his crew overnight and he finds himself repeating Groundhog Day over and over and over again, for years. Over time, his reaction moves from hedonism to recklessness to offensive behavior to suicide attempts. He eventually finds contentment and love but only after repeating the same day for decades.

Indeed, thanks to the movie, Groundhog Day has become popular shorthand for any unpleasant, endlessly recurring situation that repeats itself with little hope of change. And that, my friends, brings us to lung cancer.

Groundhog Day & Lung Cancer: Perfect Together

Lung cancer is the poster child for a recurring situation that repeats itself time and time again with little hope or chance of progress.

While there have been dramatic improvements in the five-year survival rates for breast or pediatric and prostate cancer, lung cancer pretty much remains unbeatable. If you're diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer -- unfortunately, the most common staging at diagnosis -- the survival rate is 4 percent. Those numbers have not changed much over the years.

And the stakes are large:

  • Unless things change, most of the 225,000 Americans who will receive a lung cancer diagnosis in 2011 are likely to be dead within five years.
  • Lung cancer will kill more of us this year than breast, colon, ovarian, melanoma, brain and leukemia combined.
  • 71,000 women will die of lung cancer this year -- almost twice as many as will die from breast cancer -- and many of them will have never smoked.

No change, little hope. And for those afflicted with this terrible disease, lung cancer is like Groundhog Day in another critical respect. Every few months your future resides on whether or not someone -- in this case your radiologist -- sees a shadow on your scan.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can create change. Lung cancer doesn't have to be the official disease of Groundhog Day.

Forgiveness Is Understanding That You're Just Like the Other Guy

The state of lung cancer research and research funding is abysmal. Why? There's no good way to say this. We are, as a society, prepared to let people with lung cancer die without extending our hand. The logic? You have lung cancer, you probably smoked, you had a choice, so you don't deserve our help. It doesn't seem to matter that growing numbers of lung cancer diagnoses are made for people who, like my wife, never smoked or that many lung cancer patients gave up smoking 20 years ago or more or that nicotine is almost as addictive as heroin. In effect, we are saying "don't bother us with the facts or context -- you're on your own." So much for understanding and compassion.

Look, I've been struggling with Type 2 diabetes for 15 years. Sometimes I get depressed and sneak a cookie or two, sometimes more. A guy I know has a gambling problem; he will probably miss a mortgage payment to make a big Super Bowl bet. One in four Americans are obese. Substance abuse is rampant. But no one says you're diabetic or an alcoholic, to hell with you. The fact is, most of us struggle with something. It's time to realize this simple, elemental truth and extend it to lung cancer: "Forgiveness," as author-educator Christina Baldwin once wrote, "is the act of admitting we are like other people."

Let's show lung cancer patients -- many of whom, incidentally, never smoked -- and their families some compassion ... and provide some hope for the future.

If Not Now, When?

Time for a little leadership. Unfortunately, successive congressional sessions and presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have stood by and let this sorry story unfold. But there is something this president and this Congress can do about it: pass the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act.

The Act -- which has lingered unhealthily in both houses of Congress like so much smoke in a political backroom -- seeks to halve the number of lung cancer deaths in the next five years. The Senate version in particular is smart, bipartisan, long overdue legislation that our elected officials in Washington have inexplicably dragged their feet on. Enough already.

This Congress has a unique opportunity to prove to the American public that it's not just about partisanship, pontification and re-election. And you have a unique opportunity to hold them accountable.

Let's give Washington a timely little shove. Want to help? E-mail your senator or congressperson and ask them to pass the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act. Five minutes to help save 160,000 lives a year. Not a bad use of a few minutes of your time.