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 baring 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.
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 percent 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 percent 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 air, can get lung cancer.
Researchers are on the verge of a seismic shift in our ability to diagnose and treat lung cancer, and more funding is desperately needed to bring these promising new therapies to fruition. In the last five years, researchers have learned that some lung cancers are remarkably sensitive to a new type of cancer treatment -- one that comes in a pill and is targeted specifically toward the genetic defects that make that particular cancer "tick." In clinics across the country, oncologists are now testing their lung cancer patients to find out which type of gene the cancer carries so they can know which type of targeted therapy will work best. As a result, some patients are living longer, with fewer side effects and improved quality of life compared to traditional therapies. In addition, in the last two years researchers have started to learn how to harness the immune system to attack lung cancer, and have seen some patients with advanced disease go into prolonged remission; sometimes lasting long after the immune therapy is stopped. These types of successes in lung cancer treatments would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.
Scientists are deeply committed to broadening and improving therapy options until there is an effective treatment for all lung cancer patients. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with lung cancer has translated to a massive inequality in research funding. When analyzing the combined 2012 cancer research dollars granted by federal organizations, for every woman that dies of breast cancer, more than $26,000 in federal research funding is devoted to breast cancer research. But for every woman that dies of lung cancer, just over $1,000 federal dollars are invested. The difference is staggering.
November is national lung cancer awareness month. Scientists don't have millions of dollars to spend on marketing to call attention to the need for research dollars. If they did, they would spend that money on research.
You can help by spreading the word about the need for lung cancer research to family and friends. By rejecting the tendency to blame lung cancer patients for their disease, you can help lift the crushing weight of stigma and guilt that for some can be as bad as the cancer itself. With increased research, more lives will be saved. Please join me this November and talk about lung cancer, for Judy, and patients everywhere who are too ashamed to mention it.
Dr. Lecia V. Sequist is a medical oncologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the LUNGevity Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. On Nov. 2, she will participate in LUNGevity's Breathe Deep Boston 5K Walk, which raises critical funds for lung cancer research and awareness about lung cancer in the Boston community.