My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in November 2012. At that point, she was given four to six months to live. But she held on for an entire year, not succumbing to the disease until November 2013.
Her diagnosis, while devastating, was not a surprise. She had been a smoker for more than 30 years—from the late ’70s until 2008, when she quit cold turkey after she learned that she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and was told, in very clear terms, that if she continued smoking, she wouldn’t last a year.
While her health did improve after she quit, between 2008 and 2012, she made numerous trips to doctors offices, emergency rooms and hospitals. The majority of them were related to this excruciating back pain she’d often experience. Sometimes she’d hear that she needed to stretch and exercise more. (Which she did.) Sometimes she’d get advice on her diet. (After she quit smoking, she gained a noticeable amount of weight.) Sometimes she’d be advised to take a certain number of Advil pills. And then, sometimes she’d be advised to have equally excruciating procedures done on her, the most excruciating being steroid injections into her back and a spinal tap—both of which intensified her pain instead of alleviating it.
And then, after four years of this, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
It’s been two-and-a-half years since my mom passed. And a lingering question about the last few years of her life persists in me. A question I can’t escape:
Why wasn’t her cancer found sooner?
I am (obviously) not a doctor, but it would seem as if this could (and, perhaps, should) have been detected before it reached stage 4. She was seen by doctors regularly, had a history that would have seemed to suggest lung cancer was a possibility and had the type of back pain also often associated with that type of cancer. Of course, I’m very aware an earlier detection could—and probably would—have had the same result. But this acknowledgment doesn’t make that question go away.
At this point, you might be wondering how this connects to race, racism and white privilege. Well, although white privilege is often dismissed as an abstract and academic term with no basis in reality, it doesn’t exist without the perpetual cultural, social, political and legal reinforcement that white people’s feelings, thoughts, desires and opinions matter more than the feelings, thoughts, desires and opinions of nonwhite people (black people, specifically). This phenomenon also affects how physical pain and discomfort are assessed and treated. White pain is just taken more seriously than black pain, a fact proved in numerous studies, including this one reported in the Washington Post:
African Americans are routinely undertreated for their pain compared with whites, according to research. A study released Monday sheds some disturbing light on why that might be the case.
Researchers at the University of Virginia quizzed white medical students and residents to see how many believed inaccurate and at times “fantastical” differences about the two races—for example, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites or that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly. They found that fully half thought at least one of the false statements presented was possibly, probably or definitely true.
Moreover, those who held false beliefs often rated black patients’ pain as lower than that of white patients and made less-appropriate recommendations about how they should be treated.
Do I know, with 100 percent certainty, that my mom’s lung cancer could and should have been found earlier? No. And do I know, with 100 percent certainty, that if my mom happened to have been white, her pain would have been treated earlier as a dire and life-threatening concern instead of as an annoyance some yoga and a carb-free diet would stem? No, I do not. But I do know that if her race did affect her treatment and, ultimately, shorten her life, she wouldn’t have been the first and won’t be the last black person that happens to.
And that is not an abstraction.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at email@example.com.