The 'Painful Personal Toll Lung Cancer Has Taken on My Life'

05/08/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015
Cheryl Strayed

I first learned about lung cancer in the medical-school library at the University of Minnesota when I was a 22-year-old English major. I wasn't technically allowed to enter that particular library -- it was reserved for those studying to be MDs -- but I persuaded the woman who worked the door to let me in by sheer force of my desperation. She took mercy on me after I explained to her that my mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer the week before.

I went to the medical library because I believed that knowledge was power, that in researching this disease that had unexpectedly attached itself to my mom, I could save her life, and perhaps most heartbreakingly, I hoped that the information I found there would correct and reverse the horrible news that my mother's doctors had shared with us in making her diagnosis. To be honest, when I walked into that library, I didn't quite believe my mom had lung cancer. She was 45 years old. She didn't have any preexisting health issues. She took no medications, seldom drank alcohol, and she was a notorious lover of vegetables -- most of which she grew herself in our yard. She hadn't had a cigarette in more than a decade (and even when she had smoked, it was for a brief time and only casually). People like my mom did not get lung cancer, I believed that day as I sat paging through the impossibly dry books, and they certainly didn't die of it.

Except they did, I'd learned by the time I left the library hours later, so stunned I could scarcely walk. Lung cancer, I found out that day, is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women -- it kills nearly twice as many people as any other cancer. Half of those who are diagnosed with lung cancer die within one year. While smoking is still a primary-risk factor for lung cancer, approximately two thirds of lung-cancer diagnoses are in "never smokers" or former smokers, although the majority of these are former smokers. It's common for lung cancer to be asymptomatic and people may believe treatment is futile.

As the doctors predicted and those medical books made clear, there was no cure for my mother. There were no treatments that could even extend her life. She died seven weeks after her diagnosis. Everyone who knew and loved my mother was shocked. It seemed an astonishingly out-of-the-ordinary death to most, but because of what I'd learned about lung cancer, I knew it wasn't. The trajectory of my mother's illness was a sadly typical scenario. It's the way it goes with lung cancer.

And it's still the way it goes, 24 years after her death. For background, in 2011, the lung-cancer death rate fell to the same level it was in 1990, which means there was very little change. The five-year survival rate for lung cancer has only improved by about four percentage points since that time.

In my books and essays, I've written candidly about the painful personal toll lung cancer has taken on my life and because of that I've met and corresponded with thousands of people around the world whose lives have also been impacted by this devastating disease. Of the many things that have touched me about the response to my memoir Wild, the fact that so many people who've had and survived lung cancer or loved someone who died of the disease see themselves in my story is among the most meaningful.

It's a response that has only intensified with the release of the film adaptation of Wild, in which Laura Dern portrays my mother, Bobbi, and Reese Witherspoon plays me. While making the movie, I spoke with Laura and Reese extensively about their roles. Both were passionate about accurately portraying the deep loving bond my mother and I shared and also the wrenching grief we felt when we learned she was soon going to die and did. The scene in which Reese, as the 22-year-old me, arrives at the hospital to find Laura, as my mother, dead is as precisely as it was in real life that every time I watch it I weep. It's a powerful moment depicting the death of one woman and the savage grief of another, but when I wrote it in my book and when I watched it on the screen, I knew I wasn't telling a story about only my mom and me. I was telling the stories of many. Every five minutes, another woman in the U.S. is diagnosed with lung cancer. More than 70,000 of them died last year.

When Laura and Reese were nominated for Academy Awards for their work in Wild, I decided there was no better time to speak about this cause that is so important to me. Laura Dern, who has become my dear friend in addition to being what I refer to as my "movie mama," joined me in that effort. To show our support for the American Lung Association's LUNG FORCE initiative, which aims to raise awareness of lung cancer in women, Laura and I wore turquoise-colored rings to the Oscars and Vanity Fair After-Party -- the initiative's official color. This symbolic act was especially poignant to me because turquoise is a color that has a powerful presence in my life and also in Wild. While filming the movie, Laura wore a turquoise ring that had belonged to my mother and Reese wore a replica of the turquoise necklace I wore on every step of my 1,100 mile trek -- a necklace I fashioned out of one of my mother's turquoise earrings.

It's too late for me to save my mother, but it isn't too late for us as a society to make lung cancer the public-health priority that it must be. We need more reliable early detection, better treatments for those with the disease, and higher levels of funding for lung-cancer research that will not only change what we know about this deadly disease, but also save lives. National Women's Lung Health Week is right around the corner (week of May 11th), and I ask you to join LUNG FORCE and Share Your Voice to help stop lung cancer in women. Visit to find out how.

Cheryl Strayed's #1 New York Times bestselling memoir WILD was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon. She’s also the author of the bestselling advice essay collection TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS and the novel TORCH. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages around the world. Strayed's essays have been published in The Best American Essays, the New York Times, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Salon, The Sun, Tin House, Glamour, and elsewhere. She is the co-host, along with Steve Almond, of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugar Radio, which originated with her popular Dear Sugar advice column on The Rumpus. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom and their two children.