Survey Shows Lung Cancer Stigma Has Decreased, More Awareness Still Needed


A recent survey found that lung cancer stigma can be a barrier to treatment; however, on the plus side, the percentage of people who associate the disease with smoking has dropped in recent years.

Lung cancer stigma — like assuming a patient diagnosed with the disease had to have been or is a smoker – was found to be a barrier to people receiving the care they needed, according to survey results from The Lung Cancer Project.

However, the latest results show such stigma may be decreasing: The percentage of people who associate lung cancer with smoking has dropped from 84% in 2012 to 80% in 2019. Moreover, people with lung cancer reported to feel less ashamed about their disease, decreasing from 40% to 35% who felt that way from 2012 to now.

CURE spoke with Dr. Joan Schiller, of Inova Schar Cancer Institute, about the study results and how raising awareness can help to stomp this stigma.

CURE: Why is it important to raise awareness around negating lung cancer stigma?

Schiller: Lung cancer a major problem and yet people don't know about it. But as we've shown in our study, many patients feel very stigmatized about (their lung cancer diagnosis). They feel embarrassed to have lung cancer, that society is blaming them about getting lung cancer and has no sympathy toward them. And that translates into a decreased ability to advocate for themselves.

We've shown, for example, that it will often take longer for patients to receive care than people with other types of cancers. And I think part of that is the stigma related to smoking and the feeling that they “did it to themselves.” But we know that even non-smokers get lung cancer. We also know that cigarettes were marketed to vulnerable populations in the 1950’s, and 1960’s, when people were told that there was no harm. And then later in the 1980’s, and 1990’s, it was marketed toward teenagers. (Smoking is) extremely addicting, so it's very difficult to stop. I'm not sure that we should be blaming people with lung cancer, any more than we blame people who have motorcycle accidents for riding a motorcycle.

How do you think education and awareness have helped decrease this stigma?

I think one of the good things that has happened is that we've had better treatments for lung cancer. They're significantly better than they were 20 years ago. By getting the word out there into the public, that certainly helps reduce some of the stigma associated with it. Lung cancer research has not been well funded up to this point, which I think, is probably partly responsible for why these advances have taken so long. For example, when you look at the number of breast cancer deaths per year in the United States versus the number of lung cancer deaths per year in the United States, the (National Institutes of Health) funds research tenfold for breast cancer deaths compared with lung cancer deaths. If we get the word out there that cancer is a disease that can happen to anybody and that it can be prevented by screening, they can reduce the number of deaths by screening. Also, if you are diagnosed with cancer, you need to see your doctor quickly so that you can be set up with some of these better treatments. Lung cancer is not something that should be hidden in a closet.

Is there anything we haven’t touched upon that patients should know more about?

Screening patients at high risk for lung cancer is important and can reduce the number of deaths. Because of the stigma, people don't even want to go in and get screened for lung cancer, but it's every bit as good as a mammography is for breast cancer.

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