This essay was originally published on Beliefnet in August of 2005.

I don't think my father ever picked up a cigarette. I know he never smoked one. His family never smoked, and he never liked to be around smoke.

My dad liked baseball and the Beatles. He was an accountant by trade, but far preferred spending his time playing golf, relaxing with his family, or lying on a Caribbean beach. He cared deeply about the people around him--and they, in turn, cared deeply for him.

Last June, my father died at the age of 56 after a nearly two-year battle with lung cancer. His story challenges the very fundamental perceptions people have of lung cancer patients.

Indeed, people always seem so surprised. How is it possible, they ask, that he never smoked? The answer, of course: It is possible. More than 10 percent of all lung cancer patients never smoked--and that percentage is rising.

But my question is: Why does it matter? Why did so many people, upon my dad's diagnosis, first ask whether he smoked, instead of how he was feeling or how he was being treated or even how they could help? Why did it seem that so many people wanted to place blame for a disease for which there is no blame?

It's simple: We're all scared. Lung cancer is a beast that's awfully hard to beat, and if we think there's a way to control it, that makes us feel so much better. Phew, we think, at least we can avoid that one.

But it's not that easy. Earlier this month, Dana Reeve, a 44-year-old non-smoker and widow of actor Christopher Reeve, made public her own ongoing battle with lung cancer. The world--and even some of my own friends and family--seemed so surprised. But more and more lung cancer cases are now diagnosed in those who have never smoked--both men and women. Indeed, any of us could be diagnosed with lung cancer. It's a terribly frightening illness, working quickly to literally snatch away your every breath--often before you even know it's there.

And yet, a troubling stigma remains. That stigma makes the toughest of battles even tougher. Patients, survivors and family members, like me, end up defending themselves and their loved ones at a time when they should be wrapped with unconditional support and love. Throughout my father's bout with lung cancer, I was constantly reminded that his illness was "a smoker's disease." All the literature I read, all the news clippings I saw and all the television advertisements bombarded the public with a single message: Don't smoke--and you won't get lung cancer. I wanted to yell, "Tell that to my father!"

Lung cancer is treated like the "ugly stepsister of cancer advocacy"

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  • Before my dad's diagnosis, I was like so many other women – worrying more about breast cancer than anything else. When my dad began his battle, I searched for lung cancer groups to join, walks to take or petitions to sign. There were none. There wasn’t the clear-cut support and outright sympathy that, it seems, other cancer patients often get from those beyond their inner circle of friends and family. There are really no celebrity advocates for lung cancer either, because, to be frank, they don't survive long enough to become advocates. And I believe lung cancer's "smoker's disease" stigma somehow makes it less appealing, and perhaps not glamorous enough, to fight for.

    My dad, however, fought lung cancer as hard as he could, through surgery and chemotherapy, and more surgery and more chemotherapy and then radiation. He tried a relatively new drug towards the end, which didn't work, and spent his last month at home, surrounded by friends and family.