Lung cancer: ‘Joan never smoked . . . we were numb with shock’

Widower reveals his pain and disbelief after his wife was diagnosed with disease at just 42

Cliff Burnby met his wife Joan when they were both still in their teens. They went on to have three children together and now, in his mid-40s, the Dublin man reveals how the love of his life was diagnosed with lung cancer at just 42 years of age, despite being a non-smoker and living a healthy lifestyle.

"Joan never smoked, wasn't overweight and always looked after her health," he says. "She had no symptoms whatsoever until in June 2014, she started getting bad headaches and pains in her face. It was initially diagnosed as a migraine and a few days later, our doctor said it was a sinus problem and prescribed antibiotics. This seemed to help a bit which was great as we were just about to go on holiday to Portugal with the kids."

A few days into their trip, Joan started to feel out of breath and decided it was due the heat – but symptoms worsened and she visited hospital where she was diagnosed with a chest infection.

“Doctors were great and after taking X-rays they gave Joan some antibiotics to clear up what they said was a chest infection,” says Cliff who works as an aircraft engineer. “These had little effect so I brought her back a couple of days later and was informed that she had pneumonia and would have to be kept in.


“But the next morning I got a call to come in as doctors needed to see me urgently. I had no idea what was going on, but bundled the kids into the rental car and while they waited in reception, I was taken into a room where the consultant informed me that a CT scan had revealed a tumour on Joan’s lung. I was absolutely devastated and almost fell off my chair in shock – this was the last thing I was expecting.”

90% of cases are due to smoking

Lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Ireland with more than 2,500 cases diagnosed each year and while 90 per cent of cases are due to smoking, a small number of people, like Joan, develop the disease without being exposed to cigarette smoke, asbestos or other known triggers.

Because the mother of three was not in the usual risk category, Portuguese doctors were quick to reassure her husband that the tumour may not be cancerous, but urged him to cut their holiday short so further tests could take place in Ireland.

“I had to break the news to Joan – which was absolutely awful as neither of us had seen it coming,” he says. “I also had to tell the kids that we were flying home the next day and it was a very surreal experience to be on a flight with happy people who had just had a great holiday – we were all numb with shock.

“The doctors in Portugal had given us a disc to bring to the hospital in Dublin but they did further tests and a biopsy in order to make a diagnosis. The results of this took three weeks and the waiting was horrendous. Then the day arrived when we would find out whether or not the tumour was malignant – we were told the worst possible news; Joan had stage 3 lung cancer.”

Because of the location of the 7cm tumour, it could not be removed surgically so chemotherapy would aim to reduce its size before a course of radiotherapy would begin.

This started in July 2014 and three months later, Joan went back for a scan which showed that the tumour had shrunk – so the possibility of a bright future now seemed achievable.

I didn't tell Joan she was dying as I didn't want her to be frightened

However, this hope was short-lived and tragically on St Stephen’s Day 2014, just six months after first feeling unwell, the 42-year-old died, leaving behind her devastated family.

“Joan was hopeful for a while in October; and even when during radiotherapy her oesophagus swelled to the point that she couldn’t swallow, she still thought things might change,” says Cliff. “It’s human nature to be hopeful but while I was trying to be positive, I knew, deep down, that stage 3 lung cancer was a terrible thing.

“Joan was in a very bad way in December. She had fluid on her lungs which probably meant the cancer had spread and I was called in to talk to the consultant. I asked him to tell me straight and said ‘she won’t be with us for Christmas 2015, will she?’ He said that she definitely wouldn’t and probably had only a few weeks, or at best, months to live.

“I didn’t tell Joan she was dying as I didn’t want her to be frightened so I kept telling her that she would be fine. But the day after Christmas she died – leaving a massive hole in our lives.”


Recent research from the Global Lung Cancer Coalition revealed most people presume that lung cancer patients are smokers and this can cause them to be less sympathetic to sufferers.

"The GLCC survey revealed a strong correlation between those countries with a lower incidence of smoking and a higher proportion of people agreeing that they have less sympathy for people with lung cancer," says Aoife McNamara, Information Development Manager at the Irish Cancer Society. "This suggests that as a society we are more anti-tobacco and while this is a good thing for the health of the general public, the concern is that lung cancer patients and their carers are being stigmatised by this connection.

“So it is important to remember that while the majority of lung cancers are due to smoking or a history of smoking, it is possible to develop lung cancer having never smoked. But regardless of the cause of their diagnosis, no one deserves to get lung cancer.”

Widower Cliff Burnby agrees and says people need to realise that this disease is very cruel no matter who it affects.

“I didn’t think that people could get lung cancer without either smoking or being exposed to chemicals,” he says. “But Joan did and I have been amazed by the amount of people who either imply that she must have been a smoker or come straight out and ask.

“I feel compelled to tell people that she didn’t smoke, but at the same time, even if she did, she didn’t deserve to die so young, I didn’t deserve to lose my wife and my children didn’t deserve to lose their mother.”

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Ireland and worldwide.
-  90% of all lung cancers are due to smoking and the risk is directly linked to the number of cigarettes smoked every day and the years spent smoking.
- Abstaining from or quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do to avoid getting lung cancer.
- Other risk factors include age (generally occurs is people over 50 years), gender (the incidence of lung cancer in females is rising) and family history (this may increase your risk).
- Exposure to asbestos and high radon levels are also risk factors.
The majority of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at a late stage which is why awareness of the symptoms and early detection is vital."

1. A cough that doesn't go away or a change in a long-term cough.
2. Feeling short of breath or wheezing.
3. Repeated chest infections that won't go away even after antibiotics.
4. Coughing up blood-stained phlegm (sputum).
5. Pain in your chest, especially when you cough or breathe in.
6. Feeling more tired than usual and/or unexplained weight loss.
7. Hoarse voice, problems swallowing or swelling in the face or neck.