Remembering Dustin "Screech" Diamond

On January 21, 2021, the public found out that former child star Dustin "Screech" Diamond was diagnosed with stage 4 small cell carcinoma as a never smoker. Three weeks later, he was dead at just 44 years old.

For those of us who were part of the generation that spent Saturday mornings watching Saved by the Bell, this news came as a collective shock. For me, as a stage 4 lung cancer patient, I was dumbfounded. Lung cancer is notorious for almost always being diagnosed in the late stages but even in Diamond's case, his death seemed way too premature.

Diagnosed with SCLC

At 11 years old, Dustin Diamond was the youngest cast member of the hit teen sitcom Saved by the Bell. For 13 years, he played the annoying yet lovable Samuel "Screech" Powers. Screech was the clueless, genius, funny, and lanky "side geek" to Zack Morris, the coolest guy at Bayside High. What's more, Screech submitted himself to daily unrequited love from the popular fashionista Lisa Turtle. Trapped in this role that would define his entire life, "Screech" found himself leading the complicated and checkered life that former child stars know all too well.

Dustin was, however, getting his life back on track until he made headlines with his cancer diagnosis. Cleveland Clinic's medical oncologist Dr. Nathan Pennell, who specializes in lung cancer says that small cell carcinoma is "incredibly aggressive," adding that: "It's one of those cancers that almost always is found by the time it's spread. There really is no early detection for this kind of cancer — it just grows too fast."1

There's always a back story...

So how did doctors miss the diagnosis? The tale becomes more tragic as we find out the details of the back story. Especially since Dustin discovered a visible lump on his neck the previous year but delayed going to doctors out of fear. Close friend Dan Block said he didn't go because he wanted to live his life without the public scrutiny. Diamond's manager, Roger Paul added: "He was afraid of the public attention if he went into the hospital. But finally, his girlfriend took him and the doctors confirmed it was cancer."2

Don't ignore the signs

I am in no way blaming Dustin Diamond for his untimely departure on earth but his story serves as a cautionary tale of how high the stakes can be when you a) don't listen to your body and b) are ignorant to risk factors and symptoms of lung cancer.

At 27 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States, lung cancer is the leading cause. We all know that smoking is a risk factor in all cancers but more and more "non-smokers" and young people are being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Dr. Pennell says: "...the range of people who get cancer is extremely wide, especially in non-smokers with lung cancer. They're very commonly younger, in their thirties, forties, and fifties. The truth is, anyone with lungs can get lung cancer and we really need a better way of detecting it, especially in younger people who don't have the traditional risk factors like smoking."2

Environmental risk factors

Let's have a look at the environmental risk factors, which are:3

  • Industrial carcinogens (such as arsenic, soot, tars, silica, nickel, etc).
  • Wood smoke (3 billion people cook and heat with solid fuels. Globally, 17% of lung cancers attributed to burning fuels).
  • Air pollution (in the US, it contributes to 5% of lung cancer, and in Europe around 10% and in East Asia/China almost 50%)
  • Second hand smoke (responsible for 7,300 deaths per year).
  • Family or personal history (lung disease like chronic bronchitis, or a family member previously had lung cancer).
  • Asbestos (banned mineral-based substance used for insulation).
  • Radon (this gas typically found in the basements of older homes and buildings).
  • Radiation (people, smokers especially, who've had radiotherapy to the chest for other cancers).

Here is my mnemonic device: I WAS FARR.

Taking our symptoms seriously

In short, we are living in carcinogenic environments and cannot predict if we will be 1 of the 2 people who will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime.4 The best we can do is pay attention to when we're not feeling well, take our symptoms seriously and examine our internal and external environments for risk factors.

To learn more about advocating for your health and the dangers of stigma, watch Angie's interview with Dr. William Pao in Common Ground Conversation.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on May 26, 2021, Angie Brice Hessbruegge passed away. Angie's thoughtful writings and advocacy efforts will continue to reach many. She will be deeply missed.

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