Caring Currents

Fighting the Stigma of Lung Cancer

Last updated:

November 19, 2008

I've recently heard the same sad story from several friends and members of the community: Their parents are desperately ill with lung cancer, and they want to get them the best possible treatment. Yet they feel that their parents' cancer isn't being treated with the same aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach that they could expect if it were colon cancer or breast cancer.

They've come up against one of the less talked-about aspects of Cancer World: the stigma that surrounds lung cancer. Because November is lung cancer awareness month, I thought it would be a good chance to get this issue out in the open.

Statistics Tell a Sad Story

According to the latest statistics from the Lung Cancer Alliance (for the year 2007), lung cancer killed more than 160,000 people and is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. I'm guessing that most of us don't know that lung cancer kills more people than breast, prostate, colorectal, liver, kidney, and melanoma cancers combined.

Although lung cancer accounts for one in three of all cancer deaths, it received less than 5 percent of the National Cancer Institute's 2007 research budget of $4.8 billion dollars. Meanwhile, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is approximately 15 percent and has been stuck at that low rate for many years. Only 16 percent of lung cancer patients are diagnosed when their cancer is at an early stage, when it's more curable.

Why? It's simple: Lung cancer is viewed by many as a self-inflicted illness. There's shame and guilt surrounding lung cancer because the assumption is: You smoked, so you brought it on yourself. Lung cancer doesn't have the public advocates that other types of cancer have. I ran into this issue head on when reporting the recent death of actor Paul Newman. I tried to find out what kind of cancer he'd had and discovered it wasn't being discussed, though rumor had it as lung cancer. (Whenever you see the cause of death listed in an obituary merely as cancer, chances are it's lung cancer.)

Yet consider this statistic: 60 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer either never smoked or are former smokers who quit long ago. One in five women and one in 12 men diagnosed with lung cancer never smoked at all.

The media may be to blame for some of this misapprehension. According to a recent survey by CancerCare, the overall tone of lung cancer media coverage has become significantly more negative in the past few years.

Fighting Back Against the Shame and Stigma

Recently, an aquaintance of mine told me the story of his longtime partner, a life-long nonsmoker, who was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 42. She was initially refused surgery but finally persuaded a thoracic surgeon to operate following chemo to shrink her tumor. The aggressive treatment allowed her to live almost four years, much longer than her initial prognosis.

So enraged was her partner by the battle she had to fight for aggressive treatment that he went on to work with reporter Amy Marcus of the Wall Street Journal on a story about patients battling for more aggressive treatment for lung cancer, one of a series that won Marcus the Pulitzer Prize.

Happily, a more aggressive approach to treatment, including surgery, is becoming more common for lung cancer cases, at least at certain cancer centers such as the University of California, San Francisco, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and Vanderbilt University. And new treatment methods, such as a vaccination, are in various stages of research and clinical trials.

So if you're caring for someone who's been diagnosed with lung cancer and you've been told there's not much doctors can do, ask again. Don't be afraid to push for the most aggressive approaches available, and ask for a second opinion if you have any doubts. You don't need to let the stigma against lung cancer stop you. We know better.

Image by Flickr user Shawnzlea used courtesy  of Creative Commons Attribution License.