The Devastating Effects of The Lung Cancer Blame Game

It's Lung Cancer Awareness Month, but many supporters feel that the stigma attached to lung cancer stands in the way of getting the support that's really needed. In this blog post, Arielle opens up about her mother's experience with lung cancer and how her family has dealt with these stigmas.

In 2010, my mom, a life-long nonsmoker, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. It was a disease I knew almost nothing about - a common theme among many lung cancer patients and their families. I will never forget the shock of looking up the survival statistics for stage IV patients for the first time and seeing "4%". My family was devastated but determined to fight back.

In the five years since my mom's diagnosis, so much has changed in the field of lung cancer. Congress passed the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act, which requires the National Cancer Institute to develop a scientific framework to address the most lethal cancers - namely lung and pancreatic cancers. In the coming months, 3 more lung cancer drugs are expected to receive approval by the FDA which will mean that by early 2016 about half of available lung cancer drugs will have been approved in the last 3 years alone and new targeted drugs and immunotherapies are extending the lives of lung cancer patients with advanced disease.

Yet, progress can't come fast enough. Lung cancer accounts for about 27% of ALL cancer deaths each year, the 5 year survival rate has hovered around 17% for decades and alarmingly, research presented at this year's World Conference on Lung Cancer indicates that lung cancer rates among non-smokers (particularly women) have doubled.

Despite the urgent need to dedicate significant mindshare and dollars to this ravaging disease, lung cancer only receives $1,442 in federal research funds per death, compared with $26,398 for breast cancer and $13,419 for prostate cancer, according to an NIH study. Factor in private donations, and the funding gap becomes even more astounding.

So how can it be that a disease that afflicts 1 in 14 Americans in their lifetime and accounts for nearly 160,000 deaths each year can remain overlooked? One word: stigma. A pervasive underlying suspicion that lung cancer patients should be blamed for their disease has held back both public and private research dollars and in turn, stalled major progress toward a cure, leaving lung cancer patients with few viable treatment options.

While the developing landscape of lung cancer research offers some reason for hope, stigma still holds progress back at every turn. Progress didn't come fast enough for my mom, who after a courageous battle with this vicious disease, passed away in 2013 at the age of 59. And it isn't coming fast enough for the 220,000+ Americans and their families who receive a lung cancer diagnosis each year.

With November, Lung Cancer Awareness Month, now upon us, let's all take this opportunity to help change the narrative around this disease. Let's pledge to treat lung cancer patients and their families with the same level of support, love and empathy that we do all cancer patients. Let's swap out our pink ribbons for white ones. Let's attend a lung cancer event in our community and perhaps most importantly, help combat the stigma by asking lung cancer survivors how they are doing, instead of whether they smoked.

Anyone who has watched a close family member or friend die of this disease knows that no one, whether they smoked or not, deserves lung cancer. So this November, when we pause to remember the loved ones we've lost, let's also commit to fighting back against the stigma of lung cancer and, in turn, doing better by lung cancer patients and their families - because they deserve it.

Have you experienced the stigma of lung cancer? Share your experience in the comments below!

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(Image courtesy of the author)