Lung Cancer and Stigma

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2017.

Many patients with lung cancer learn firsthand about the stigma surrounding the disease. There is a potential underlying belief among the population that people get lung cancer because they made poor choices in life, and that because of their poor choices, they deserve their disease. This blaming the person for their disease causes additional suffering to lung cancer patients and their families. The stigma is clearly linked to disease-related distress and poor outcomes in lung cancer patients.1,2 In addition, the stigma can have many health consequences, including:

  • Avoidance or delay in seeking treatment or a second opinion
  • An increase in illness-related distress
  • Conflict in relationships
  • Reduced social support
  • Lower quality of care 2

Contributing Factors to the Stigma

Lung cancer is the biggest cause of cancer-related deaths, however, it is sometimes referred to as the “invisible cancer”. Over half of people who have lung cancer die within one year of diagnosis, and only 16% of lung cancer patients are still alive five years after diagnosis. The high death rate from lung cancer is due to the fact that the majority of lung cancers are found in later stages, after the cancer has spread. The low survival rate is a factor in the perception of lung cancer being a “death sentence.” This perception lends a negative, hopeless view on the disease. In addition, the low survival rate results in a smaller survivor population to advocate for disease awareness, support, and research.2

Cigarette smoking causes the majority of lung cancers, and the prevailing attitude, even among some lung cancer patients themselves, is that the disease is their own fault. Many lung cancer patients who never smoked often find they must defend themselves against this stigma by publicly stating that they didn’t smoke. The success of the anti-tobacco campaigns has linked lung cancer to smoking in the public’s mind, and they have had an unintended consequence of creating the perception that people with lung cancer have brought the disease upon themselves. While cigarette smoking is an unhealthy choice, all patients deserve respect, care, and compassion.1,2

The Difficulties of Quitting Smoking

Cigarette smoking can be difficult to quit. Cigarettes contain nicotine, an addictive substance that makes the body form dependence to it. However, it’s more than the physical addiction that smokers must overcome. There are many cultural, societal, and economic factors that also influence smoking. In addition, there is a behavioral addiction, and smokers must often restructure many aspects of their daily lives to break the habit. Those who successfully quit often do so with the help of nicotine replacement products, behavioral intervention programs, and/or prescription medications.2

The Impact of the Stigma

The stigma surrounding lung cancer not only affects how patients are personally viewed, it also impacts how patients perceive the treatment they receive from medical professionals. Unfortunately, lung cancer patients may perceive they are being judged and not treated as well as patients with other cancers. This makes second opinions even more important for patients who do not feel appropriately treated, and patients with lung cancer are encouraged to find health care professionals who are compassionate.2

The stigma also impacts public policy, research, and advocacy. Funding for lung cancer is disproportionately lower than other cancers, in part due to the stigma, and few celebrities or community leaders lend their support for a stigmatized disease.2

Reducing the Stigma

Several advocacy organizations and experts in the field of lung cancer are working to reduce the stigma by raising awareness of the disease, drawing attention to the advances in research and treatment, and putting a personal face to lung cancer.2

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