Lung cancer carries unfair stigma that other cancers don’t

November 6, 2013

The pink frosting on the stack of brownies at the hospital coffee shop last week was another reminder that October was breast cancer awareness month. Pink was everywhere. I wondered aloud to the barista what color the brownies would be for November, the month designated for lung cancer victims. She shrugged, and said nothing except that I owed a couple dollars for my coffee. 

About.com says the official color for lung cancer is pearl, clear, or white.

But I think the color of Lung Cancer Awareness month is pretty much a drab gray because lung cancer is so depressing. It kills more people in the United States than any other type of cancer, including breast cancer. The prognosis for lung cancer, the type I suffer from, is often grim. And to make matters worse, it lacks what I have come to think of as cancer chic—that hot pink color that festoons everything in October from NFL uniforms to the pink lights adorning the tops of Chicago’s high rise buildings.

 

 

 

 

Lung cancer is responsible for more than a quarter for all cancer deaths, and it kills about twice as many women as breast cancer, and almost three times as many men as prostate cancer. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 201,144 Americans were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010, the latest year for which numbers are available. All told, 158,248 people died from the disease that year. Slightly more men than women are diagnosed and die from lung cancer each year.

Lung cancer is the most virulent killer, but there is a big difference between being diagnosed with lung cancer and, say, cancers of the breast, skin or prostate. People who contract those cancers  do not uniformly face the inevitable question, “Did you smoke?”

Put another way, the unspoken question, the stigma that attaches to lung cancer, is,“Isn’t this your own fault?”

For me, acknowledging my smoking history — I smoked for 20 years before quitting for good 15 years ago — brings on tremendous guilt. Over time, I have learned that, based on medical studies, my long-ago smoking habit probably was no more a cause than genetics that contributed to my lung cancer. But there is no shaking these feelings of guilt.

I sometimes even consider lying when asked the question — to claim to be among the 10-15 percent of lung cancer victims who have never smoked cigarettes. I want to point out that nearly two-thirds of all new lung cancer cases strike non-smokers — people who have either never smoked or who gave up the habit, often decades ago.

But I don’t lie. I admit to being a former smoker. 

The curse of smoking and the fact that lung cancer doesn’t have a good color for November are both bad enough.

The real tragedy is that this disparity has translated into a gross inequality in research funding for lung cancer versus breast cancer, says Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, $314. 6 million was spent on lung cancer research in 2012. Breast cancer was the target of $602.7 million in research spending, nearly twice as much.

“There is no question that breast cancer awareness has become a marketing phenomenon,” says Lichtenfeld. “Compare that to lung cancer — we don’t see anywhere near that level of activity.”

Lichtenfeld says advocacy is particularly important because of the implied stigma attached to lung cancer and because the disease needs to be kept front and center to attract research funding for research.

He has no problem with the American Cancer Society’s historic focus on warning people about the harm caused by smoking. “That’s not a bad thing, because that has saved many lives,” he says. 

“But what we have not done as a public matter is we have not been as aware and understanding of the (lung cancer) patients themselves. We have focused on tobacco cessation … that’s necessary, but not sufficient. Progress is slow.”

In my view, November needs a new color by which to highlight its designation as Lung Cancer Awareness month. We ought to color November blue, and treat all cancer victims under the big blue sky with equal compassion and dignity.  

Follow me on Twitter  @DLSherman

 

 

7 comments

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Great (but depressing) article. The part about the “awareness” is so ridiculous since we hardly need “awareness” for any cancers, we just need to know our options for prevention and/or treatments.

Posted by healthylivingtc | Report as abusive

Debra, I wish you well with your fight. You are still young. My wife also had non-small cell lung cancer and was a previous smoker. But as a child, she was exposed to cigarette smoke from both of her parents. She quit prior to the birth of our second son and was smoke-free for over 35 years. She would likely be alive today had she had better treatment. The spot on her lung was noticed THREE years before it had metastasized to her spine and hip in early 2010. Had a simple biopsy been done in 2007, she may have survived. They tried targeted gene therapy with Tarceva and radiation but the cancer finally took her from us. Thank you for your article and maybe someday people will come to realize how devastating this cancer is.

Posted by bcblum | Report as abusive

HI, Deb. It’s Laura J. Just my five cents worth:
Yes, I agree with you about the stigma. I, too, “resent” (maybe too strong a word?) the pervasive “pink” that implies that somehow having breast cancer is more “honorable” than other cancers. I think that in the U.S., because breasts are so sexualized here, that people put more stock in saving them and have fallen for the “Camelot” myth that a pink ribbon would somehow band us all together in this battle. Doesn’t seem to be happening that way, does it? If anything, it has marginalized other cancer sufferers. Many of us smoked in the past. Barry did, too. But cancer ran in his family (his mother and much later father both succumbed). I think a person is born predisposed, with perhaps a more-fragile genetic makeup; stress (however you define “stress”) is an underrated contributor, IMHO. My mom smoked like a chimney until nearly the day she died from complications from RA. Go figure! People always search for explanations and ways to assign blame to keep their worlds in order. We have a lot of “learnin\'” to do! Cheers to you, Deb.

Posted by debussy | Report as abusive

Yes, I agree with you about the stigma. I, too, “resent” (maybe too strong a word?) the pervasive “pink” that implies that somehow having breast cancer is more “honorable” than other cancers. I think that in the U.S., because breasts are so sexualized here, that people put more stock in saving them and have fallen for the “Camelot” myth that a pink ribbon would somehow band us all together in this battle. Doesn’t seem to be happening that way, does it? If anything, it has marginalized other cancer sufferers. Many of us smoked in the past. Barry did, too. But cancer ran in his family (his mother and much later father both succumbed). I think a person is born predisposed, with perhaps a more-fragile genetic makeup; stress (however you define “stress”) is an underrated contributor, IMHO. My mom smoked like a chimney until nearly the day she died from complications from RA. Go figure! People always search for explanations and ways to assign blame to keep their worlds in order. We have a lot of “learnin\'” to do! Cheers to you, Deb.

Posted by debussy | Report as abusive

Keep educating people like you are doing. It is so important that we learn more about what causes lung cancer and all the ways to prevent it, not just smoking cessation. It’s clear that people are not really “aware” of lung cancer if we still think that it’s only caused by smoking. Be well and keep on sharing your journey.

Posted by Britwife | Report as abusive

Please know that many of us with metastatic breast cancer loath the pink rah rah of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Metastatic cancer is not pretty, feminine or worth celebrating. And there are plenty of folks who find ways to imply that they do not have to worry about getting bc themselves because they have healthy eating habits, are slim, breast fed their children, etc etc etc. All cancers need more research funding. All cancer patients need access to treatment that is current Standard of Care. All late stage cancer patients need compassionate care such as provided by many hospice programs. May you have peace of mind and be surrounded by love on your journey with rotten lousy cancer!

Posted by PJBinMI | Report as abusive

Thank you for your comment. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that some cancers are more worthy than othes — quite the opposite! You are right that all cancers need more research funding.

Posted by Debra Sherman | Report as abusive