Stigma lingers for deadliest cancer

Lung cancer kills roughly twice as many women as breast cancer, and almost three times as many men as prostate cancer.

Story highlights

  • Lung cancer is responsible for 25% of cancer deaths
  • Lung cancer patients often struggle with shame and stigma
  • It's not just smokers who get lung cancer
  • The stigma translates into fewer research dollars
My patient, "Judy," is one of more than 228,000 Americans this year who will be diagnosed with lung cancer.
And like most of her fellow lung cancer patients, she is struggling not only to learn all she can about her diagnosis and treatment options, but also to adjust to the overwhelming burden of shame and stigma that plagues this disease.
When asked who is providing her with support, Judy said she is ashamed to admit her metastatic, incurable cancer diagnosis to loved ones, and that she is bearing the burden alone. Because one of the strongest risk factors for lung cancer is smoking, our society has come to the conclusion that people diagnosed with lung cancer somehow deserve it, that it was brought on by their own "bad" behavior.
Tell a friend or colleague that your aunt just found out she has lung cancer. Almost always the response will be, "Did she smoke?"
Then tell someone else that your aunt just found out she has breast cancer, or colon cancer, or any other type of cancer you can think of. This time the response will be pure sympathy, without any blame attached.
Dr. Lecia V. Sequist
The feeling that lung cancer patients should somehow be held liable for their cancer diagnosis is often the only notion people have about lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer, responsible for more than 25% of all cancer deaths. It kills roughly twice as many women as breast cancer, and almost three times as many men as prostate cancer.
What many people don't realize is that about 60% of all new lung cancer diagnoses are among people who have never smoked or are former smokers, many of whom quit several decades ago.
For the first time, the World Health Organization recently declared air pollution as a leading cause of lung cancer. In short, anyone with lungs -- anyone who breathes -- can get lung cancer.
Researchers are on the verge of a seismic shift in our ability to diagnose and treat lung cancer, and more f