Joe Soptic's wife, Ilyana, died in 2006, less than a month after her diagnosis with late-stage lung cancer.
Ilyana Soptic was not alone in her circumstances. Almost 200,000 Americans were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. Many died within a year; fewer than 30,000 are alive today.
Joe Soptic's name may seem familiar to you. Last week, Priorities USA, a pro-Barack Obama super PAC, unleashed a television ad in which Joe's story was used, essentially, to assign responsibility for Ilyana's death to Mitt Romney. It was a powerful ad, but as subsequent reporting revealed, it was, at best, misleading and, at worst, untruthful. I think it had something to do with Romney, Bain Capital and the loss of health care coverage. I'd share the logic of the ad, but I'm not sure I understand it.
But what I do understand is Joe Soptic's pain -- my wife has stage IV lung cancer -- and I relate to the need to blame someone, anyone. But the fact of that matter is that Mitt Romney didn't kill Ilyana Soptic. We all did.
Or as that famous political observer, Pogo, once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
A Collective Failure
Think about the absurdity of it all. The media feeding frenzy over who killed Ilyana Soptic has received a hundred-fold more public attention than the disease that killed her.
The fact is that Ilyana Soptic could have had multiple health insurance policies, $10 million in the bank and her own personal lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and it probably would not have made a difference in her outcome.
There is a lung cancer epidemic in the United States. This dreadful disease will kill 160,000 Americans in 2012 -- three times more than any other cancer. It has a dismal five-year survival rate of 16 percent. No one is beyond its grasp, from steelworkers like Joe Soptic to steel mill owners. Yet we all stand idly by. It's as if there is a serial killer on the loose and we're choosing to look the other way. And it's hard to be hopeful as lung cancer receives less than 10 percent of the federal dollars per death that go to breast and less than 15 percent of the dollars that go per death to prostate cancer.
Surprised by these statistics? That's the problem. Precious little is said or written about lung cancer. Lung cancer will kill more than 70,000 women in 2012 -- almost 80 percent more than will succumb to breast cancer. Yet, search the terms "women + boxing" and "women + lung cancer" on Google News, and you'll find that the former has received 2,000 times more mentions in 2012 than the latter.
Politicians... First Among Equals
We all share the blame for allowing the biggest cancer killer of all to rage unchecked -- there is not a lot of public understanding of lung cancer and even less support for families going through it, and charitable support for research has been abysmal -- but Joe Soptic's anger at politicians was not totally misplaced.
Leaders are meant to lead. But the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is basically where it was 40-plus years ago, when President Nixon declared a war on cancer. Successive congressional sessions and presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have done nothing, allowing this massacre to unfold.
The Obama and Romney ads and those of their super PAC assassins portend an ugly, vituperative and unbecoming presidential election campaign. Global warming? The economy? Health care? Surely there is something we can agree on. How about this: The fact that 160,000 of us will die of lung cancer in 2012 -- more than the total for breast, colon, ovarian, melanoma, brain and leukemia combined -- is a national travesty.
At least the Olympics provided a brief respite from the politically shrill season and gave us a timely and useful reminder of what we can accomplish with effort and conviction.
But then I stop to think that more than 3,000 of us will die of lung cancer this year for each one of the gold medals we brought home from London. Or that it is statistically probable that dozens of those brilliant young athletes will receive a lung cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Or that one network, NBC, paid nearly five times more for broadcast rights to this 16-day event than our government spent on lung cancer research all year. Then I am not so proud.
Time for Action, Not Accusation
Enough with this unproductive, mind-numbing, and mean-spirited political posturing. Enough. Enough. Enough. It's time for constructive action.
This Congress and this president have a unique opportunity to prove to us that they can rise above partisan politics and work together on issues that matter to the American people -- and we have a unique opportunity to hold them accountable.
It's time for Congress to pass the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act. The Act, which seeks to halve the annual number of lung cancer deaths by 2020, is smart, bipartisan, long-overdue legislation that our elected officials in Washington have inexplicably dragged their feet on for four years. Send a letter to your elected representative to tell them it's time to act and here to help spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.
Pundits can dispute the truthfulness and intent of the Soptic ad -- and Republicans and Democrats alike can waste hundreds of millions of dollars each between now and November 6 on advertised broadsides, invectives and character assassinations -- but no one can deny Joe Soptic his loss. And no one can obscure our utter failure -- politicians first and foremost -- to stand up to this dreadful disease.
Joe, we're sorry for your loss. But we're sorrier still that your story has been used to further obscure the fact that we are all complicit in the ongoing human tragedy of lung cancer.