Breast cancer awareness was a groundbreaking movement in the 80s and 90s that, frankly, saved a lot of lives and laid the foundation for making early detection the norm in successful treatment. And I personally owe a debt to breast cancer research because the exceedingly rare mutation that drives my lung cancer was initially studied regarding breast cancer. However, lung cancer remains stigmatized in the way that breast cancer, for lack of a better term, was made fashionable; the pink ribbon of October is ubiquitous, it set trends, it helped raise billions and spawned a whole “awareness” industry (that is uniquely profitable among such charities).
Cancer research disparities
Dollar for dollar, however, lung cancer has a tiny fraction of the research money per patient and a far, far higher mortality rate. It is a fact that more women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer, again partly due to the raised awareness of breast cancer that leads to high rates of early detection and better prevention. An ever-growing percentage of these women are young and have never smoked. We simply do not know all the risk factors that may lead to lung cancer and we still do not fully understand all the mechanisms by which lung cancers grow and spread. It is time to end the stigma and change the narrative on lung cancer — without doing so, there will not be the popular drive for funding the necessary research, for achieving the fabled “moonshot,” and getting this range of diseases under control.
In 2016, breast cancer was earmarked for $704,000,000. At the same time, lung cancer was being allocated only $263,000,000. This is in spite of a near equal rate of diagnosis in any given year. And this is in spite of the fact that lung cancer is responsible for more than double the number of deaths caused by breast cancer. The anticipated number of women diagnosed in 2016 with an invasive form of breast cancer was estimated to be around 231,840, with a correlating 40,290 approximate breast cancer deaths. In that same time period, about 71,660 women were expected to die from lung cancer — the number of women alone comes close to doubling the breast cancer death rate, but add to that an estimated 86,380 men. The numbers are staggering. With an estimate of over 158,000 deaths attributable to lung cancer in a single year, a number that is nearly the equivalent of four years of cumulative breast cancer deaths, there is no reasonable excuse for the disparity in research funding.
Early detection for breast cancer vs. lung cancer
Early diagnosis saves considerably more lives for breast cancer patients than for lung cancer patients. Overall, slightly more patients were expected to receive a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer than lung cancer in 2016. The early nature of breast cancer diagnosis contributes both to the increased number of breast cancer patients and the significantly higher rate of mortality among lung cancer patients, who are often diagnosed at Stage IV (and rarely show symptoms before that).
Breast cancer is a truly serious disease, and the amazing advances in treatment and care responsible for making it highly survivable only happened due to the amazing dedication of advocates who spread awareness. It was a disease that was kept hidden for many years, something not to be talked about until brave women stepped forward and made their experiences the centerpiece of discussion. With a focus on early detection, the breast cancer narrative changed — eventually, there was a complete upheaval, turning the old story upside down. Twenty years later, breast cancer awareness is completely mainstream. It is a model for how simple education and some passionate dedication combine to lead toward better funding. But lung cancer still faces serious struggles of perception that slow the spread of awareness.
Looking beyond the pink ribbon
While women with breast cancer are viewed with compassion, many lung cancer patients still face a stigma where they feel blamed for their disease. Where breast cancer has flashy campaigns and plenty of accessories, lung cancer is obscured, often quietly hidden away. Yet, out of our undiagnosed population, 1 out of 13 men and 1 out of 16 women are likely to find themselves sitting across from their doctor at some point, listening to these words: “You have lung cancer.” With enough awareness and advocacy, those words might be spoken before it is too late for effective treatment. With enough awareness and advocacy, there might be better treatment options, available sooner, with a greater power to cure.
It is time to look beyond the pink ribbons and build upon that passionate dedication to the cancer cause. We are all cancer patients, and we should all advocate together to change the stigma, change the narrative, and change the future for generations of lung cancer patients yet to come.1-4