Fighting the Lung Cancer Stigma

Despite the research, the promising new drugs, the many ongoing clinical trials, lung cancer remains a disease that affects too many people, too often. For patients and family members, the disease carries an added burden: a stigma that lung cancer and smoking go hand in hand, and that lung cancer patients brought this on themselves. Not only must these patients and family members face their disease, but they also must carry the guilt and blame that some people cast their way.

When we posted a recent infographic on smoking and cancer, we unintentionally helped promote that stigma. We’re deeply sorry and have removed the infographic.

While it’s true that quitting smoking can help reduce your risk for lung and other cancers (and other diseases as well), there are many other risk factors — from air pollution to asbestos to genetic predisposition. The plain fact is that anyone can get lung cancer, just like anyone can get breast cancer (even men) and anyone can get lymphoma or leukemia.

“When I was first diagnosed with lung cancer, everyone would ask me, ‘Why did I get lung cancer?” says Diane Legg, who was diagnosed in 2004. “No one asks someone why they got prostate cancer.”

The implication often for lung cancer patients, is that something they did, such as smoking, caused the cancer.

“People think it’s a self-inflicted disease,” says Dennis Reilly. “It’s not.”  Reilly’s wife, who never smoked, died of lung cancer in 2007.

“People believe that it’s one of the more preventable cancers ,” Reilly points out. “Just don’t smoke. Don’t enter a room with a second-hand smoke. It gives you a false sense of security.”

The truth is: you could do none of those things and still get lung cancer. More people, he says, need to advocate for early detection and funding for lung cancer research.

While progress has been slow at times, stories like Justin Perry’s give hope. Perry, 23, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer earlier this year. Genetic testing on Perry’s tumor revealed a mutation in his ALK gene, which opened the possibility for a targeted treatment. Listen to his story

Thanks to these research advances, new targeted therapies offer more treatment options for patients. “The identification of genetic alterations – such as EGFR and ALK – make the tumors more likely to respond to certain targeted drugs that can be taken in pill form and have fewer side effects than standard chemotherapy,” says Pasi Janne, MD, PhD, the director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Dana-Farber physicians offer testing to all lung cancer patients for the presence of such mutations. And researchers continue to hunt for additional genetic targets within lung cancers.

For more information on lung cancer, please visit Dana-Farber’s Thoracic (Lung) Cancer Treatment website or these posts:

Five Things You Need to Know About Lung Cancer

Reasons for Optimism in Lung Cancer Research

Lung Cancer: Stages, Treatments and Targeted Therapies