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In September, I attended a “March on Cancer” in Washington, DC, together with a conference sponsored by the Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support and Education (ALCASE).
Before leaving my home in Michigan for the nation’s capital, I was informed that, although the march was well-intentioned on the part of the grassroots organisers, it would focus entirely on generating funding for research into the treatment and cure of cancer. It had also become a promotional vehicle for a number of major pharmaceutical and medical products companies. There would be no focus at all on prevention, since there is no money in that, even though prevention is an essential component of the fight against cancer. This is especially true of cigarette smoking, since it is responsible for more cancer than any other cause.
Following the conference, I went with a group of ALCASE staff and volunteers to the Friday night “candlelight vigil” that served as the big kick-off to the next day’s march. One of the volunteers, my friend Susan Soloway Levine, lost her daughter at the age of 28 to cigarette-caused lung cancer earlier in the year. There were several thousand people attending the event by the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, and an enormous stage was set up, along with large screens, spotlights, and a large, elevated platform in front of the stage for dozens of reporters and cameras. A number of prominent people spoke—the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Olympic skater Scott Hamilton, former “junk bond king” and prostate cancer survivor Michael Milken, and professional tennis player Andrea Jaeger, among others—some quite movingly.
The Reverand Jackson preached well, as always, but like the others, he never once mentioned cigarette smoking, tobacco, or lung cancer (which, in the anti-cancer community, is known as the “invisible cancer,” getting relatively little attention because of the low survival rate and the general disinterest of the pharmaceutical and corporate medical community), although he chose to mention diet as a particularly serious problem for the African American community. These speeches went on for a full hour. With only half an hour remaining, literally not one word had been said about tobacco.
Like others in our group, Susan and I became increasingly incensed. Finally, without saying a word to one another, we split from our group and gradually made our way together from the very back of the crowd, up through the throngs of people cramming the area around the stage. The speeches continued, the lights were blinding, and the scene struck me as having an air of Orwellian unreality about it.
Susan Soloway Levine is a fighter. She is neither tall nor physically imposing, but when something matters to her, she never backs down and she never gives up. Susan and her family watched her daughter, Deanna Soloway, suffer an agonising death, and she and her husband, who was also at the vigil, wanted something said about what killed her, an addiction to cigarettes that started when she was 15 years old.
We finally made our way around to the side of the stage, which was crowded with people, and managed to sneak through the first barrier. When we reached the second barrier, Susan worked her persuasive magic on the woman guarding the entrance, and we found ourselves on the stage with a group of the next speakers—individuals, each of whom was holding a candle, who had been invited by the sponsors to step up to the microphone and say a few words of remembrance for a relative who had died of cancer. This was to be the emotional climax of the vigil. Susan and I, suddenly part of this group, were handed candles.
Barely a minute later, Susan said “Come on,” and together we walked into the bright lights at the front edge of the stage. We stood there alone. No one seemed to be aware that we were gatecrashers. Maybe some of the organisers knew it, but what could they do? At the microphone, Susan’s voice rang out over the Mall and in the direction of the Capitol. She said, “I am Susan Soloway Levine,” then bravely told the audience that she was lighting her candle for her daughter Deanna, whom cigarette smoking had killed with lung cancer.
It was the first time such words had been uttered all night. With my arm still around Susan, I moved up to the microphone and said:
“I am here with my friend Susan to say that it is shocking that not a single speaker has had the presence of mind or the courage to talk about cigarette smoking, until now. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of cancer in America. Lung cancer, most of which is caused by cigarette smoking, is the leading cause of cancer deaths in America, and lung cancer has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cancer killer of women in the past few years. Reverand Jackson mentioned diet. He should have mentioned cigarette smoking too.”
It was then that a cheer went up, possibly one of relief on the part of those who, like the two of us, had been frustrated by what had been happening. Standing in that place, near the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr once changed history, was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life.
Then Susan and I stepped back, lit our candles, and stood beside the others. Retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, the honorary chairman of the March on Cancer, took his turn at the microphone, said a few prepared words, then pointedly added, “And I also light this candle for my mother who died of lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking”. He looked over at us, and Susan went over and hugged the man. He told her that he had followed our example. (Michael Milken, standing behind me, looked a little abashed. He has formed an organisation which funds research on prostate cancer, and which accepts a portion of the proceeds from “Big Smoke” parties sponsored by the magazineCigar Aficionado.)
The next day, at the march itself, Jesse Jackson gave a modified speech. This time, he railed against the tobacco industry. I saw him backstage afterwards (Susan, former Winston cigarette model and lung cancer victim Alan Landers, and I had sneaked through some barricades again), and he gave me a warm handshake. Some time later, Alan and I talked to singers David Crosby and Graham Nash, whom we spied waiting under a tent, about the importance of focusing on tobacco. When they finished their second set near the end of the day, Graham Nash’s final words, made at our request, were about the need to fight tobacco and keep kids from smoking.
Finally, I ran into General Schwarzkopf and introduced myself. He grinned, looked at me knowingly and said, “How’d you like what I said last night!” Much as I wasn’t a supporter of the Persian Gulf war (that involved another protest, and another story), I thanked him sincerely for what he had done on Friday night.
So, in the end, perhaps we made some small progress. As Jesse Jackson often says: keep hope alive.