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Rob Densen Headshot

The Last Refrigerator

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I came home Monday night, took one look at my wife, and knew something was desperately wrong.

"Honey, what is it?" I asked, half inquiring, half -- by way of my sheepish intonation -- signaling my acceptance of the blame for whatever was awry in her life.

"The refrigerator.... It's dead."

"Dead, as in finito? Beyond any reasonable hope of repair?"

"Dead as in last week's vegetable lasagna is lying in the sink, a disgusting, slimy mush. And your no-sugar-added fudge pops? Let's just say you don't want to know what they look like."

And then came the knockout punch. "This is your fault."

I couldn't argue. For the last week or so, as our 14-year-old refrigerator struggled for its last few cooling breaths, I was making my wife miserable in her search for a replacement, something that should, normally, be a mindless, checklist task.

Our late refrigerator was a full-length side by side, with beveled wood panels on the doors which we got to match the cabinetry when we remodeled the kitchen. When it came to a replacement, I had relented on figuring out how to match the cabinets, but I was insistent on a side by side. My wife preferred the fridge-on-top-with-French-doors-freezer-on-the-bottom arrangement that is all the rage.

For the record, my preference for a side by side wasn't just a matter of style. With a reconstructed knee, a frozen shoulder, and two bulging discs in my back wrapped around a giant lazy streak, I generally go out of my way to avoid any sort of bending motion. It's not impossible, just a little uncomfortable.

In the week we dilly-dallied, the food was melting in the fridge -- and my wife was on the way.

The next night I returned home and all was fine. "I ordered the top/down model. It will be here Thursday."

She had been to her Pilates class earlier in the day and, in the midst of a long discussion with her instructor, it all became clear. "I realized," she said, "that this will be my last refrigerator."

A Life Measured in Kilowatt Hours

I couldn't argue with her. Not with the logic and, most regrettably, not with the truthfulness of that statement. My wife has Stage IV lung cancer. Given the arc of the disease and the quality of refrigerator design and construction, it is highly probable that this will be her last refrigerator. The question is, are we also on our last washing machine, hairdryer or big screen TV?

It is unbelievably painful -- but sobering and highly instructive -- to look at lung cancer that way. Diagnosed with lung cancer and you're not talking decades, but kilowatt hours.

It is an incredibly virulent disease. Overall, lung cancer has a 15% five-year survival rate. Stage IV lung cancer, the most common staging at diagnosis, has a 4% survival rate. Look at it this way: by the time you've finished reading this post, two more Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer. They are likely to be dead within five years.

Here's another cold, hard and, I hope, unacceptable fact: 160,000 Americans will die of lung cancer in 2011 -- three times more than the next most deadly cancer and more than prostate, breast, pancreatic, pediatric and colon cancer COMBINED.

And while breast cancer grabs the attention, the funding dollars and the 5K walk participants, the fact is that close to 70% MORE WOMEN will die of lung cancer this year than will die of breast cancer. Many of them will be women like my wife who never smoked, Indeed, lung cancer in women who never smoked is one of the fastest growing cancers. No one knows why. Regrettably, not many people are even asking the question.

Of Lung Cancer and Consumer Electronics

We're so good at -- and obsessed with -- technological innovation for applications both frivolous and mundane. Yet, we're so bad at deploying our ample resources -dollars and brainpower -- against a disease that devastates close to a quarter million families every year.

Go into any consumer electronics or appliances store and you will be dazzled by the technological innovation. It's all so head-spinning that I need to take a Dramamine before going to the Apple Store.

Our new fridge? It's probably good for 20 years. Plus, the ice cube dispenser knows exactly how many ice cubes I take in my Diet Coke. The picture on my HDTV is so clear that I saw shaving cream in Brian Williams' ear the other night and, even as I write this, the cell phone in my jacket pocket is secretly capturing the inner-most thoughts of the guy sitting next to me on the train. I may be exaggerating, but not by much.

Finally, consider this -- last year, Apple spent $1.8 billion on R&D (Microsoft spent more than four times that amount) Want to know what the National Cancer Institute spent researching lung cancer, the number #1 cancer killer by a factor of three -- about $282 million.

We can communicate globally without concern for time or distance, access the world's libraries from our desktops, tap orbiting satellites to map the most routine trip, and short gold with a swipe on our phone. We've made a Jackass movie in 3-D -- and there are smartphone applications that fight acne. But we can't figure out how to diagnose lung cancer early, or why non-smoking women are getting lung cancer in record numbers, or how to boost overall lung cancer survivability from a mere 15%?

Something is badly off in our world. Shameful, actually. There's an app for that. It's called compassion.

For more information or to support lung cancer research and advocacy, please visit one or more of the following sites: Uniting Against Lung Cancer, OneBreath, The Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, National Lung Cancer Partnership, or the Lung Cancer Alliance