In 1973, David Sturges’ father died of a heart attack. He was just 62 years old. At that time, David had been a smoker for eight years. A fatal heart attack would, by all measures, seem the perfect impetus to finally quit smoking. It took a few years, but, David did quit. Not long after that, he took up swimming, became a marathon runner and even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. In other words: he was “living healthy.”
From the time of his father’s death, David saw his cardiologist regularly. In 2002, a routine coronary test showed that his heart was in great shape. There was, however, an incidental finding. Imaging showed a small nodule on the lower lobe of his right lung. His cardiologist was not particularly concerned. “Nodules,” he told David, “are quite common and usually amounted to nothing.” But the biopsy showed otherwise: the cells were live. David, who was completely void of symptoms, had lung cancer. It had been nearly twenty years since his last cigarette.
Less than a month later, in what he describes as a difficult surgery, the lower lobe of David’s right lung was removed. Fortunately, his margins were clear, so he needed neither chemotherapy nor radiation. Then “life went on.”
David did not speak much about his diagnosis, yet it inevitably came up in conversation.
“When I would tell people, most of them would ask if I had been a smoker. When I told them I had been, the look of concern changed… as though they wanted to tell me that it was my fault. That was, and continues to be a real issue for patients.”
This blame-the-patient commentary happened more often than not. The stigma of having been a smoker, albeit long ago, was undeniable. Under the best of circumstances, it is never easy to manage a cancer diagnosis. The added stigma – one not found with other cancers – made it even more complicated.
Fourteen years passed with clean scans.
It wasn’t until the end of 2016, that his routine scan showed a small change. His team deemed it significant enough to warrant further investigation. The result: David’s lung cancer had returned…34 years after he quit smoking.
“While I had lulled myself into hoping that after all of the those years that all was okay, I was also honest enough with myself to realize that it had happened once – and there was nothing to say it would not happen again, and of course it did.”
Because he continued to have no symptoms, it was easy for David to ignore the fact that he had lung cancer. For many reasons, the stigma among them, he made a conscious decision to not allow the disease to define him. Yet, when he was invited to serve as a patient advocate for SPORE (Specialized Program of Research Excellence for UCLA’s Research Project) he accepted without hesitation.
As a SPORE representative, he was dismayed and disheartened by the glaring discrepancy in funding for lung cancer research as compared to other cancers. He felt that was due, in large part, to the stigma associated with smokers and lung cancer. Not one to sit idly by, he took action. Together with fellow SPORE members, Kim Norris and Lori Monroe, David began politicking on Capitol Hill. They lobbied both the Senate and the House hoping to raise awareness and dollars. Despite their efforts, the lack of funding remained unchanged. That is when David, Kim, and Lori took matters into their own hands and established Lung Cancer Foundation of America.
Today, David continues to feel well and to have scans every three months. He practices law and plays an active role in furthering the mission of LCFA. He also sits on the Program Review Committee of the Department of Defense’s Lung Cancer Research Program and is as committed as ever to helping reduce the stigma associated with lung cancer, secure the research dollars necessary to discover new treatments, all with the goal of finding a cure.