My mother was the middle daughter in a large Italian family. She enjoyed
the role of helping her sisters and parents, so it was no surprise when she
decided to attend nursing school after her high school graduation. She
excelled in school and became a skilled nurse who could handle any
emergency with finesse and grace.
My mom gave birth to me at the young age of 23. She approached motherhood
with boundless energy. She refused to purchase store bought clothing and
was content to knit my every cap and bonnet. She cooked gourmet meals and
decorated and redecorated the house regularly. She was committed to
providing me with the perfect home.
I, of course, spent most of my early childhood trying to emulate her. It
was easy for me to think that she was the most beautiful woman in the
world. At 5'5", with enormous brown eyes, long wavy brown hair and a
slender build, she was a sight to be seen. She was also the life of any
party. A family gathering did not go by without a friend or cousin telling
me how lucky I was to have "Aunt Ro" as my mom.
By my teenage years, I started yearning for my own identity. My teenage
rebellion fit the standard mold; anything that made my mom different from
other mothers infuriated me. Just as I cringed when she enthusiastically
requested the "Electric Slide" at weddings, her jaw dropped when I left the
house in flannel shirts, cuffed jeans and (gasp) not a smudge of blush or
mascara. It seemed we had come from different worlds.
As far apart as our worlds became in my teens, they merged closer than ever
in my twenties. We started to enjoy the same things again and saw eye-to-
eye on a growing number of issues. I appreciated all that she struggled
through to give me a better life while she enjoyed watching me grow into
the woman she hoped I would become. Our relationship had come full circle.
In my late twenties, my mom developed a fibroid. Her doctor scheduled
surgery to remove it and ordered a chest X-ray as a precaution. The X-ray
revealed a large suspicious shadow and a follow-up CT-scan confirmed that
it was lung cancer. My mom broke the news to me with four words, "I am so
sorry." I told her that I would meet her at home in an hour.
I found my mom lying on the sofa. I hugged her tightly and told her that
everything was going to be ok. I told her that she did not need my
forgiveness because she had done nothing wrong. I assured her that no one
deserves cancer. No one. Not even smokers, many of whom, like my mom,
picked up the habit as a young teenager long before the Surgeon General's
Report and certainly well before the Tobacco Industry was exposed for its
role in concealing the dangers of nicotine.
My mom repeated her apology to me over and over again for the next 13
months. Nothing I did or said could convince her that she was not to blame
for her illness. Even though she did not feel she deserved to be cured,
she fought her illness each day for me. Every surgery, chemotherapy,
radiation, injection and procedure was endured to save me from losing her.
To most, she did not appear sick at all. She continued to work despite
many side-effects from chemotherapy, including a sensation that caused her
to feel as if the soles of her feet were on fire. When she had surgery to
remove her lung, she shopped for the occasion as if she were going on a 7-
day cruise. After her surgery, she received physical therapy. Instead of
learning to walk with one lung, my mom insisted on dancing, forcing her
therapist and anyone nearby to join her. She was released from the
hospital in a record-setting 4 days.
But I slowly did start to lose her. Before lung cancer, my mom did not
have much weight to spare. The brutal effects of her treatments caused her
to steadily lose pound after pound. As her weight decreased, her pain
seemed to increase with each passing day. Soon our conversations changed
from "how was your day?" to "how bad was the pain today?" Her chest kept
filling with fluid and the doctors did not know how to make it stop.
Together we trekked from doctor to doctor looking for answers, but each
visit left us without a solution and with decreasing levels of hope.
Nonetheless, my mom clung to her sense of humor. After her doctor
explained the details of a necessary but risky procedure, she asked if he
could take care of her wrinkles while she was under anesthesia. It took
him a few minutes to realize she was kidding.
On another occasion, she sent away a nurse who was trying to take her lunch
tray. She then proceeded to pack up her half-eaten food and put it in her
purse. She scoffed at my horrified look, gave me one of her signature
winks, and joked that she finally understood why her elderly patients were
always sneaking food out of her adult day center. As she put it, a
patient never knew when the next meal would arrive. In these moments we
did not know whether to laugh or cry.
Despite my mom's strength, wisdom and humor, she lost her battle against
lung cancer. Although she lived with the level of dignity most only
strive to achieve, she died with a stigma that nobody deserves.
I lost my battle too- I never succeeded in convincing my mom that she did
not deserve lung cancer. How could she? My mother was someone who took in
a young relative whose spine was severed in a car accident, nursing him
back to health and teaching him how adapt to his paralysis. My mother was
someone who tirelessly cared for those afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease,
counseling her patients and their families on how to cope with the
devastating diagnosis. My mother was someone who opened up our home as a
refuge for her sister who endured a difficult divorce, her cousin who
needed shelter during hard financial times, and even one of her employees
who suffered at the hands of a physically abusive spouse.
How could someone like my mother believe she deserved lung cancer?
Because she was a smoker. Because smokers have been taught that they are
to blame for their condition. Because society looks down on smokers and
conveys that smokers get what they deserve.
Now I am no friend of the tobacco industry, and if it were up to me
cigarettes would be illegal. Cigarettes are bad for you. Smoking causes
all kinds of health problems. But the notion that a smoker deserves cancer
is an ugly and vindictive way of thinking. Unfortunately, that mind-set
has permeated our society to the extent that my own mother, who lived her
life selflessly, had been brainwashed into believing that she deserved
This is also precisely the kind of thinking that has led to the current
state of lung cancer research. In 2006, only $1,630 federal research
dollars per lung cancer death were spent on lung cancer research, compared
to $21,704 per breast cancer death, $14,731 per prostate cancer death, and
$4,829 per colorectal cancer death. In addition, the Department of Defense
funds research for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers, among other
diseases, but it does not fund research into lung cancer, this country's
primary cancer killer.
Roseann's Gift was established to help put an end to the disparity in
research funding. But an equally important goal of Roseann's Gift is to
raise awareness and end the stigma associated with lung cancer, because as
long as the stigma remains lung cancer will continue to kill more people
than the next three leading cancer-killers combined.