Lung Cancer’s Stigma

lung cancer stigma

Changing how we think about this deadly disease

A quick flip through TV channels or a magazine would probably lead one to believe that breast cancer and prostate cancer are the most serious cancer threats we face. While those battles are of great importance, many don’t realize that lung cancer is actually the number one killing cancer.

Fundraising and awareness campaigns for lung cancer research have some unique challenges. As science has essentially confirmed that smoking causes a huge proportion of lung cancer cases, some feel it makes sense that we don’t spend billions trying to solve a puzzle that is already mostly solved. On top of that, there is the sense that lung cancer victims brought the disease upon themselves, therefore sympathy levels are lacking.

These attitudes are problematic. First of all, many cancers are related to bad habits besides smoking. Diet, obesity and other lifestyle factors are known risk factors for many types of cancer, including breast cancer, so if you won’t donate to cancer victims who possess culpability, you’re donation options are limited. In fact, chances are you currently have habits that increase your odds of getting cancer.

  • Half of cancer deaths in the US are from preventable causes.
  • Tobacco is responsible for 30 percent of cancer deaths.
  • 1/3 of all new cancer diagnoses in the US are related to being overweight, obese, physically inactive or having a poor diet.

Source: American Association for Cancer Research

Projections by the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) indicate that obesity will result in about 500,000 new cancer cases by 2030.

Further reason why the blame game doesn’t work for lung cancer patients: many lung cancer victims smoked before smoking was known to be bad and quit long before they got cancer. In many cases, lung cancer victims can only blame hard luck.

The second problematic issue—not investing in lung cancer research because we know what causes it—leaves out an important aspect of all cancer research: survival rates. One of the biggest victories breast and prostate cancer researchers claim is a drastic improvement in 5-year survival rates since the 70s. Someone diagnosed with prostate cancer today has a 99 percent chance of living 10 years, the American Cancer Society says, and the 5-year survival rate was just 70 percent in 1980. Survival rates from breast cancer have also drastically increased. But for lung cancer, the improvement hasn’t been much. The five-year survival rate now sits at about 16 percent.

But this isn’t to say lung cancer research hasn’t progressed in the last few decades. Billions of dollars have gone toward lung cancer research, and incidence has seen a serious decline in men since the 80s. Messages about the dangers of smoking have done serious work. And though lung cancer still kills thousands each year, the number of deaths from the disease have been on a steady decline for a decade.

Still, the facts remain.

Lung cancer kills more people than the next three most common cancers (pancreas, breast, colorectal) combined. In 2014, an estimated 159,000 Americans are expected to die from the disease, says the American Lung Association.

Researchers are discovering lung cancer subtypes and broadening their understanding of the disease, meaning patients are now getting more specific diagnosis and targeted treatment, which will mean better survival. More progress lies in the future.

But issues of awareness and stigma still persist.

Not so with breast cancer. Possibly the most marketed cancer battle, breast cancer gets among the highest amount of donated dollars for any cancer. Billboards, professional and collegiate athletes, front doors and a million other places have dawned pink or the pink ribbon. The underlying message: get screened for breast cancer.

While breast cancer deaths are decreasing and survival rates are rising, some highlight the negative consequences of so much awareness. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that in the last 30 years, mammograms have led 1.3 million women to seek treatment for cancer that never would have harmed them. Mammograms can detect certain risk factors for breast cancer that will almost never see negative outcomes, but women still seek treatment, which can have harmful side effects.

There are also critics of prostate cancer testing who say the inaccurate tests lead to unnecessary procedures.

The answer isn’t to stop funding these causes, however.

Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society (ACS), cautions against what he calls “disease Olympics,” which is decreasing funding for one disease to increase funding for another. A better practice is to simply fund the best science, “as judged by the rigors of scientific peer review.” Researchers often find that discoveries about one type of cancer help the battle against other kinds of cancer. Therefore, if research is advanced in one field, don’t stop the supply of money.

“One can argue that funding the best ideas in, say, lung cancer and not the better scientific idea in another cancer could possibly hold back the advancement of lung cancer research,” he wrote in one ACS blog.

Equal monetary distribution across all cancers isn’t what we need. It’s important to realize that just because a cause gets a lot of attention doesn’t mean there aren’t other causes that are just as significant.

In the end, where you donate is a personal choice, but be informed.


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