Laurie Fenton Ambrose, 56, is president and chief executive of Lung Cancer Alliance. She lives in Delaplane, Va., on a farm with rescue horses, dogs and the occasional parrot.
What is your job with lung cancer?
We really built it from the ground up. There was no voice specific to those who could be at risk for or living with lung cancer, a terribly stigmatized disease where everyone thinks, Oh, you smoked — it’s all your fault. You get what you deserve. It’s so far removed from that. It’s a lot more complex, and people don’t have to smoke to get the disease. Particularly younger women that are growing in numbers.
What year are you talking about, before your organization?
This would have been in 2004.
There still wasn’t any sort of advocate?
There was an incredible survivor herself who I knew working in the Senate, who, unbeknownst to me, was diagnosed twice and survived twice, which is so rare. And so she said, “We’ve got to do this.” I had met her when she was also a chief of staff on the Senate side. Over the course of these last 12 years, we’ve had achievements like no one thought possible, including new research pipelines, legislative victories.
More specifics on those, please.
We created a research pipeline that now has over $120 million. It’s a lung cancer research line in the Department of Defense, because our military men and women have a higher incidence of mortality because of occupational exposures.
Agent Orange and such.
Mm-hm. We secured early detection. Huge victory. Now, if you think about breast cancer and colon cancer, prostate cancer, all the cancers that have screenings, we have one for lung cancer.
From a public health standpoint, are you looking at pollution or smoking cessation for prevention?
There are already public health coalitions that are advocating against tobacco use. So for us it’s like, Okay, where are the gaps?
What’s the cure rate like?
Five-year survival is approximately 17 percent. [Most] of those with lung cancer are found late-stage because no one is looking at this as a disease with the same strategies we apply to other illnesses. Women have so benefited from 60 years of breast cancer movement, and we are seeing the benefit of advocacy, research funding, public-private partnerships. The survival rate is almost 90 percent.
My aunt died of lung cancer and had never smoked. I am realizing right now I always tell people that, like she was one of the good ones.
You feel you have to qualify. For public health reasons, you shouldn’t smoke, because it affects your heart, your lungs, your organs. It’s a risk factor for pancreatic cancer, for bladder cancer. But for lung, we stigmatize the tobacco industry — and rightly so. But the unintended consequences are, we stigmatize those who were deceived by very deceptive marketing practices. We often hear women say, “Why couldn’t it have been breast cancer? Because I know I would have been treated better by my doctor, and have more options.”
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