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Joe Paterno Dies of Lung Cancer

By Michael Smith, MD
WebMD Chief Medical Editor

When news broke that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died just two months after announcing he had lung cancer, it took us by surprise.

Until his firing after the sex abuse scandal at the university, the 85-year-old “JoePa” had been coaching as he always had for 46 years. True, Paterno had become more frail in his later years and no longer stood on the sidelines during football games. But he always acted like he could coach forever.

Yet we also know how devastating cancer can be, and how quickly it can work. In the case of Paterno, here are three factors that may have played a role in his death:

First, he had small cell lung cancer – a type of lung cancer strongly associated with cigarette smoking. Small cell lung cancer is typically very aggressive and has usually already spread outside the lungs by the time someone is diagnosed. At this point, it is impossible to cure. And the cancer usually progresses quickly. On average, people live about 12 months after being diagnosed with small cell lung cancer that has spread.

Second, his age of 85 and his recent health difficulties, including breaking his pelvic bone last fall, were working against him. Poorer health increases the chance of dying from cancer. Plus, it can be quite difficult for someone in poor health to tolerate the intense chemotherapy needed to help control the cancer.

The possible third factor was stress. Few would doubt that he was likely under extreme stress as the accusations of child molestation against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky came to light. And in fact, stress may have made it more difficult for his body to fight the cancer. Researchers continue to study the association between stress and cancer, but some studies have shown that people with increased emotional stress are more likely to die from their cancer.

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