Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Often, symptoms of lung cancer aren’t apparent until the cancer has progressed, which can be difficult to treat and challenging for the individual to manage physically – and mentally. Lung cancer patients can truly benefit from a support group they can turn to for encouragement, compassion and care, but the support is seldom there. The problem? Stigma.
The stigma behind a lung cancer diagnosis
As a society, we tend to associate lung cancer solely with smoking. When we learn a relative, friend or acquaintance has lung cancer we immediately wonder, ‘Did they smoke?’ While it’s true tobacco products are responsible for the large majority of lung cancer cases, there are other reasons unrelated to tobacco that we must consider.
"Cigarette smoking contributes to a number of diseases and cancers; however, lung cancer is the one that most people associate exclusively with smoking,” says Dr. Merry. “Because of this association, patients often feel responsible for having given themselves lung cancer and feel shame about their diagnosis. This hinders their ability to get care because they are reticent to proceed, feel they don’t deserve care or do not involve their support network out of guilt."
5 causes of lung cancer that aren’t from smoking
Cigarettes are, without a doubt, an undisputed cause of lung cancer. However, it’s important to remember non-smokers may still be at risk.
Some people are born with a gene mutation inherited from either their mother or father. This damaged gene puts them at a much higher risk for cancer than most people.
- Air pollution
Prolonged exposure to polluted air that contains emissions from vehicles and power plants can increase your risk for lung cancer. In fact, air pollution may be responsible for approximately 2,000 U.S. lung cancer deaths each year.
Asbestos is a compound that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s and was used as both a thermal and acoustic insulation material. It is also a carcinogen. Both lung cancer and mesothelioma are associated with exposure to asbestos.
- Radon gas
Radon gas is a colorless, odorless, radioactive byproduct of decaying uranium. Approximately one out of every 15 homes in the United States contains dangerous levels of radon gas. This gas is responsible for about 12 percent of all lung cancer deaths, including smokers and non-smokers. It is responsible for 15,000 to 22,000 U.S. deaths each year.
- Passive smoking
Commonly known as secondhand smoke, passive smoking occurs when a non-smoker lives with a smoker. Those who are exposed to tobacco products regularly are 24 percent more likely to develop lung cancer. Passive smoking is responsible for approximately 3,000 deaths in the United States each year.
How society can help remove the stigma around lung cancer
Many other types of cancer have a large network of support and are highly visible in the public. They have advocacy groups driving donations to advance research, improve treatment and find a cure. Breast cancer, for example, receives more than twice the amount of donations than lung cancer receives each year.
To help put an end to the stigma behind lung cancer, doctors, family and friends of those suffering need to advocate on their behalf. People who are directly impacted by this aggressive form of cancer need to educate those around them by sharing their stories and building a network of support.
"I think if more people with lung disease, lung cancer or family members would speak up, especially celebrities and politicians, then people would realize this is a disease that has a huge impact on so many people,” says Dr. Merry. “Taking away the stigma would help lung cancer patients understand that they deserve treatment and should involve their friends and families early on for the support they need to get them through treatment. It would also help societally to allow more funding and research into preventing and curing lung cancer."
If you’d like to join the efforts to destigmatize lung cancer and help spread awareness about this aggressive disease, you can learn, share and care with one of our cancer support groups. Together we can contribute to removing the stigma around lung cancer.
Quitting smoking is hard on your own, so don’t be afraid to seek support. It usually takes most people more than one attempt to stop smoking. Talking to your doctor about medications, tobacco replacement and counseling is a great first step. Check out our health library for tips on quitting smoking successfully and avoiding a relapse or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (or 1-866-Quit-4-Life.0)