The Lung Cancer Stigma Is Real and Devastating to Patients—Here’s What to Do About It

“No patient deserves to have lung cancer, whether they've smoked or not.”

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The statistics about lung cancer are unmatched—and quite chilling: Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer of both men and women in the United States. It causes more deaths each year than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined, according to the American Lung Association (ALA).

Sadly, awareness about lung cancer and its statistics is low, due to the strong stigma associated with lung cancer. Because of this, people struggling with lung cancer tend to have less resources, support, and public empathy than other, more well-understood diseases.

What Is the Lung Cancer Stigma?

A stigma, which is disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, affects many diseases—especially those that are misunderstood, such as mental illness, HIV/AIDS, and, of course, lung cancer.

With lung cancer, the stigma comes from lack of knowledge about the disease as a whole, as well as the damaging misperception that people with lung cancer are responsible for their condition.

While smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer, more than 20 percent of Americans who died from lung cancer in 2017 reported having never smoked in their lives, according to the American Cancer Society. In fact, if lung cancer in non-smokers were its own separate category, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States, the ACS notes. Here are more facts about lung cancer that doctor’s wish non-smokers knew.

So, anyone can get lung cancer, and most certainly: “Nobody deserves to get lung cancer,” says Jorge Gomez, MD, a lung oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.  “Many lung cancer patients are made to feel like they’ve done something voluntarily to create this lung cancer and that is just not true.”

The Impact of the Lung Cancer Stigma

The lung cancer stigma plays a major role in the lung cancer experience for most people struggling with the condition. “Many patients who develop lung cancer are depressed,” says Dr. Gomez.

Not only are they concerned about their health, but they also have to deal with extreme guilt and blame, which can affect their quality of life and even quality of care.

The lung cancer stigma is linked to poorer health outcomes in lung cancer patients, according to ALA. That’s because the stigma may cause:

  • avoidance or delay in seeking treatment or a second opinion
  • increased illness-related distress
  • relationship conflicts
  • lack of illness disclosure
  • reduced social support
  • lower quality of care

“I see families who blame the patient for having smoked and getting lung cancer. And that blame is not good for that relationship. It really fractures the relationship when the patient needs it the most,” says Dr. Gomez.

What’s more, the negative light about lung cancer that circulates in the media has an impact on funding for lung cancer research.

“Lung cancer funding, even though it is the most common cause of death from cancer in men and women, is no where near the funding for other types of cancers that seem to provoke a different emotional response in people who are watching TV and people who are giving money to support cancer research,” says Dr. Gomez.

How to Cope With the Lung Cancer Stigma

If you’re having emotional trouble after getting a lung cancer diagnosis, just know that what you're feeling is very common.

“It’s important to talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help,” says Dr. Gomez. You doctor can help you treat potential depression, or help you find counseling that can help you cope with the diagnosis.

“Nobody is born knowing how to cope with the diagnosis of cancer—and everyone needs help,” says Dr. Gomez.