West Coast Wildfires as a Lung Cancer Survivor

Bridget O, Lung Cancer Survivor

Editor’s Note: This story was written in mid-September 2020.

We wake up each morning with red puffy eyes, scratchy throat, and raspy voices. Sometimes, I have dark circles under my eyes and a slight headache. Some people are getting severe headaches or migraines.  This is what it’s like to live in Portland during the west coast wildfires.

Right now, Portland has worse air quality than any other major city in the world. The sky is yellow and gray with smoke, and we can’t see the sun. It looks awful and smells worse. Our air quality has been in the hazardous range for several days. Some of the smaller towns and cities in Oregon and southwest Washington have it even worse. There's really not anywhere to go to get away from the smoke.

The city is advising us not to go outside unless it's unavoidable. Many businesses and government offices are closed. Most outdoor work is suspended. They're not picking up the garbage. Our windows are closed. We're running the furnace fan without heat to get some indoor air filtration. I think others are doing the same because furnace filters are like toilet paper was 6 months ago; stores are out of them. We put on N95 masks to go out to feed the cat (he won't come in). Fortunately, we have a few N95s from prior projects.  

The difficulties and dangers of the wildfires are compounded by the fact I am a survivor of lung, breast, and gynecologic cancers. Luckily, I'm not in treatment and my lung capacity is pretty good. I have a slight chronic cough; it has increased, but I can still breathe OK.  I can't imaging how people who are in treatment or who have diminished lung capacity are handling this. 

Normally, I would recommend anyone who has impaired lung capacity, whether due to cancer, asthma, or other conditions, to get out. Maybe go to the coast for a few days until the worst is over. But there is no escaping the smoke this year. There is fire and smoke at the coast. Some of the airlines have shut down services out of Portland due to poor visibility. You’d have to drive pretty far from the city to get away from the smoke because it seems like it’s everywhere.  

I'm grateful that I'm only in a smoke area and not threatened by fire. There are tens of thousands of people in Oregon who have had to evacuate due to the fires. Some, including a 3-generation family we know, are lucky to have family in a non-evacuated area to go to. A lot of people are staying in shelters, but some are choosing to stay in tents outside the shelters, preferring the risk of smoke to that of COVID-19 inside.

The COVID-19 pandemic adds a whole extra layer of difficulty to this year’s wildfires. When the pandemic began, it was depressing enough. My routine and social contacts are gone. I couldn’t participate in my other activities—go to the pool and attend my craft and French class.  I also couldn’t work. I’m retired but was working part-time in a homeless shelter; my pulmonologist recommended I stop working because of cancer and age. About the only thing to do anymore was go on walks and get coffee to bring home. Now, even that is shut down again and no one wants to be outside. All we can do is sit inside and look out at yellow sky. It is pretty grim.

If you have lung cancer or other breathing issues, there are some things you can do to make dealing with wildfire (or any other) smoke a little easier.  Stay holed up as much as possible and ensure your house is air tight: masking tape the windows if you need to and stuff a towel under the door. If you have to go outside wear a N95 or KN95 mask, even if you’re just going out briefly; cotton masks don’t filter the smoke as well and even just a few minutes outside can be detrimental. Be sure to always keep high filtration masks on hand, since once the fires start, it will be more difficult to find them. Sleeping with your upper body elevated can really help with breathing. My wedge pillow helps me cough less at night. If you have serious breathing problems, you might want to buy one or more air purifiers during the non-fire season to be prepared. I understand they're effective, but they're really hard to get right now because a lot of people are buying them.

Thankfully, we are entering the rainy season in Oregon. The rain and increased humidity control the fires and there are fewer heavy, dry winds to spread both fire and smoke. But we can’t forget that climatic issues are why this is happening this year. We're used to an annual wildfire season in Oregon, but there has been nothing like this in all time lived here. This year, it’s like we’ve had three years of fires in one season. The truth is these fires aren’t going away. This will happen next year and the next as long as the climatic issues continue.


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Bridget O is the pen name of a survivor of lung cancer and two other cancers.  She has lived in Portland, Oregon for 40 years. She is a retired case manager and, until the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked part time in a shelter for homeless families. She loves to travel, read, and do crafts.  She's a volunteer moderator on LUNGevity’s Lung Cancer Support Community online forum.

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