How TV and Its Stars Are Advocating for Lung Cancer Awareness

Courtesy of WGN

For decades, television and its stars have embraced an essential role as passionate advocates for lung cancer awareness. (The disease kills more people annually than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.)

November may be Lung Cancer Awareness month, but TV has never followed a calendar in shedding light on the illness.

TV Sends the Message

TV typically approaches serious health issues first through PSAs and reporting, then by dramatizing moments that will pull at audiences’ heartstrings.

In May and June 1955 — with the U.S. Surgeon General beginning a study on the effects of smoking — legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow covered the controversial connection between smoking and cancer on his series See It Now. What made the show extra remarkable: Murrow, never seen on TV without a cigarette in hand, didn’t light up during the episode. Covering the subject “was a forward step in TV’s growing journalistic maturity,” wrote The New York Times.

It would take 13 more years — with countless dramas sponsored by tobacco companies — before William Talman, costar of the popular series Perry Mason, became the first celebrity to do a lung cancer PSA, filmed six weeks before he died of the disease in 1968 at age 53. Talman, playing off the fact that his character, District Attorney Hamilton Burger, always lost cases to Mason in court, said, “I’m in a battle now…. I’ve got lung cancer.”

In early 1985, Yul Brynner, star of The King and I, discussed his losing fight against lung cancer on ABC’s Good Morning America. “I really wanted to make a commercial [cautioning against the dangers of smoking],” he added. Months later, after his death, the American Cancer Society created that public service message, using a clip of Brynner from the morning show. “Now that I’m gone,” he eerily announced, “I tell you: Don’t smoke, whatever you do; just don’t smoke.”

William Talman; Brian’s Song (CBS/GettyImages; Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives)

When the illness’ grave threat finally led to a ban on tobacco ads from television in 1970, it seemed to create a tipping point toward dramas embracing the topic. ABC’s highly affecting 1971 movie Brian’s Song, with Billy Dee Williams as NFL star Gale Sayers, who learned true courage while watching lung cancer claim his teammate Brian Piccolo (James Caan), won four Emmys and generations of fans.

In the intervening years, several series in daytime and primetime featured lung cancer plotlines, with none more familiar than the most notable lung cancer patient in TV history— Breaking Bad‘s Walter White (Bryan Cranston) — who ends up cooking meth to leave his family well supported in the wake of his diagnosis.

But no example could match the real-time grief of Duane “Dog” Chapman watching his beloved wife and partner Beth succumb to the disease this season on WGN America’s Dog’s Most Wanted.

Live to Tell

Famed survivors of the illness have also brought potent advocacy to awareness efforts.

On a 2009 Live! With Regis and Kelly episode, fill-in cohost Bryant Gumbel told Kelly Ripa, “Two months ago, I had cancer surgery,” before detailing the surgical removal of part of his lung.

Bryant Gumbel; Larry King; Stefanie Powers (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images; Greg Doherty/FilmMagic; Paul Archuleta/Getty Images)

Eight years later, talk show host Larry King spoke of his own surgery after a routine checkup. “[Doctors] said I was lucky.… Lung cancer doesn’t give you any signs until it’s in late stages,” he said. “And by then it’s too late.”

Cyclist Lance Armstrong, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and actor Gerald McRaney also count themselves among the fortunate survivors. Hart to Hart star and onetime smoker Stefanie Powers said her own lung cancer diagnosis in 2008, coupled with her mother’s death the following year, led her to write a memoir. “Even people who never smoke get lung cancer,” she reminded. “We have to take responsibility.”

Celebs for a Cause

Many celebrities have helped spread the word about the dangers of smoking. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and its link to lung cancer, inspired Loni Anderson’s advocacy efforts (both her parents had chronic breathing issues). COPD is also a big cause for Christy Turlington, who was diagnosed with emphysema in 2000 at age 31 (she’d been smoking for 15 years by then).

And race car driver Danica Patrick became an ambassador for the DRIVE4COPD initiative to honor her late grandmother. “[People] may be embarrassed because [others] assume their illness is somewhat self-inflicted,” she told Everyday Health in 2010. “But get over [it]. Living a long life is not just for yourself but for the people around you.”

Loni Anderson; Danica Patrick; Christy Turlington (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images; Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic; Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

Where to Turn

For more information, contact Lung Cancer Foundation of America:

Twitter: @lcfamerica

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