By Heather Millar
I just took an on-line test from The Lung Cancer Project, a joint effort of the oncology biotech company Genentech and leading academic researchers in psychology and oncology. I’m a little bit stunned: It seems that I strongly associate lung cancer with the word, “shameful,” and that I also link lung cancer with smoking, and a generally hopeless prognosis.
Consciously, I knew these facts before I even logged on to take the test:
• More Americans die from lung cancer than from breast, prostate and colon cancers combined: 160,000 people every year.
• Yet lung cancer receives less research funding than any of those other common cancers: breast, lung and prostate.
• People who have never smoked can get lung cancer. Approximately 1 in 10 lung cancer patients have never taken a pull on a cigarette or a cigar.
• People can develop lung cancer from exposure to environmental pollutants like radon, asbestos, or second-hand smoke.
The online test I took suggests that, unconsciously, my ideas are different. The test had me respond to a bunch of images: Cigars, ashtrays, lighter, lung tumors; breasts, breast tumors, French fries, burgers and candy. They kept switching which images were linked to breast cancer, and which to lung cancer, and which keys I should press. Sometimes the cigarettes went with breast cancer, and sometimes lung. I admit that it was more difficult for me to remember that cigarettes went with breast cancer than to link them with lung cancer.
Now it’s my turn to feel ashamed: I helped take care of my Dad as he died from lung cancer. I’m now cooking meals for a family friend who struggles with advanced lung cancer. That friend has never smoked. At least I’ve got company in my prejudice and self-deception: After results from more than 1,700 tests were tabulated, the Project showed that 3 in 4 people have a negative bias toward people with lung cancer, even if they’re cancer patients, or healthcare professionals or caregivers. That’s me. That’s you.
And that’s a problem: A growing number of studies show that more than half of all people with advanced lung cancer never receive treatment. And, of those advanced cancer patients who never receive cancer care like chemo or radiation, 68 percent are lung cancer patients. That’s almost seven out of ten: a whopping number.
Emerging research shows that one reason these patients never get care is the terrible associations most of us have with lung cancer. You know the ones: “Only smokers get lung cancer,” or, “What do expect if you smoke?” or, “Lung cancer’s a death sentence.”
Dr. Joan Schiller, a lung cancer specialist and president of The National Lung Cancer Partnership, had a lung cancer patient who just told everyone that she had breast cancer. She didn’t want to deal with people’s assumptions and judgments, explains Schiller, who’s also the head of hematology oncology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
That’s unbelievably sad, isn’t it?
Schiller thinks so, and she’s working to change things. The Partnership funds lung cancer research, helps patients make treatment decisions, and is hoping to double lung cancer survival by 2022.
Lung cancer survival stats are still rather grim. Over half of all people diagnosed with lung cancer die within a year. The 5-year survival rate is just over 16 percent. But these numbers are improving, Schiller says. And remember: Patients who get diagnosed early double their chances of surviving more than five years post diagnosis.
“If we’re ever going to improve outcomes, we need to get over this stigma,” Schiller says.
Don Stranathan, a Stage IV lung cancer survivor from Santa Rosa, California, agrees. Stranathan hiked and mountain-biked through his chemo and radiation treatments and has been in remission four years.
Stranathan works with the Lung Cancer Project and frequently posts about lung cancer awareness. You can follow him on Twitter, @don450sl.
“People don’t want to talk about it because of the stigma. But we’ve got to be more open,” says Stranathan. “If you’ve got lungs, you can get lung cancer.”
What do you think?