According to Lung Cancer Canada, lung cancer accounts for 27% of all cancer deaths, and yet it receives only 7% of research funding. In fact, lung cancer kills more Canadians than breast cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer and ovarian cancer, combined. It’s by far the most deadly cancer, yet it fails to attract the attention or research funding that should accompany its impact.
The goal of Lung Cancer Awareness Month is to address this disparity, and do it through education. Lung cancer is a largely invisible cancer, in part due to due to the stigma surrounding lung cancer through its association with smoking. Surveys have shown that 1 in 5 Canadians have less sympathy for people with lung cancer than for people with other cancers. By giving a platform to those affected by lung cancer, Lung Cancer Awareness Month is an effort to show people the real story behind this destructive cancer and encourage support for treatment.
So let’s examine the stigma, go over the facts about lung cancer and continue the conversation about a subject that deserves more attention.
Smoking: A Major Canadian Health Problem
The Conference Board of Canada recently released a report on the costs of tobacco use in this country, and the data they present are staggering.
The Conference Board found that in 2012, the most recent year for which reliable data are available, the costs associated with tobacco smoke were $16.2 billion. That includes both direct (e.g. costs incurred by the health care system) and indirect (e.g. lost earnings due to illness).
The report estimates that 45,563 deaths in Canada in 2012 were directly attributable to cigarette smoking. That’s nearly 20% of all Canadian deaths that year.
Clearly, the numbers indicate the need for a response, and many measures have been taken to limit the proliferation of cigarettes in Canada, including higher taxation, packaging requirements, and selling restrictions.
Though the legislation helps, many believe that the most powerful tool against smoking is social pressure. Former smokers often cite stigma as their main reason for quitting. That stigma against smoking has consequences for those suffering from lung cancer, a disease that is primarily associated with smoking.
Lung Cancer Stigma
Lung cancer patients are treated differently than patients with other types of cancer. This is because most of the campaigns against lung cancer focus on smoking as a primary cause.
It is true that around 50% of those diagnosed with cancer were smoking at the time of their diagnosis, but the data does not support a one-to-one association between smoking and cancer. On the other hand, 15% of those diagnosed with lung cancer are lifelong non-smokers.
Lung Cancer Canada’s 2017 Faces of Lung Cancer report connects the stigma lung cancer patients receive to the perception that it is a self-inflicted illness, a notion that increases the shame surrounding the disease, and, crucially, lowers the likelihood that those experiencing symptoms will immediately seek treatment.
There is currently no national screening program for lung cancer. The visibility of the cancer, which would be aided by increased dialogue and awareness drives, is low.
Changing Our Thinking
The social stigma from cigarette smoke affects the public perception of lung cancer. This has a negative effect on the research being done in the area, and it also affects those who suffer from the disease.
No one who gets cancer deserves blame. This Lung Cancer Awareness Month, let’s make an effort to bring awareness to lung cancer. Smoking is not the only risk factor for lung cancer, and a large percentage of those with the disease have never smoked.
Even those who were diagnosed when they were smokers do not deserve blame for their disease. Lung cancer is complex and the discourse around it should be nuanced.