A man asking a woman if she smokes as she gets ready to pop the speech bubble

Changing the Lung Cancer Stigma

I have mentioned many times that my diagnosis was devastating news to me and I know that is a common feeling in others who have been diagnosed. (We see this in all cancers, of course.)

I believe this is partly due to the fact that many of us have been led to believe that if we didn’t smoke we were fine. I have learned a lot of things about lung cancer since I was forced to after being diagnosed. My biggest takeaway so far has been that there is a stigma associated with a lung cancer diagnosis. Stigma is defined as “a mark or brand of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance or quality.” I will dig in a little deeper to talk about how we can react, educate and change the conversation about this disease.

The first time I was asked about smoking

I do consider myself lucky as I have only been asked about my smoking history a handful of times and the first time someone asked (that was not in a medical setting) was a few months after diagnosis. Anyone that knew me was aware that I had never smoked, I was a never-smoker.

I found myself visiting my husband's nephew in the hospital after he had a bad motorcycle accident. A friend of the family was also visiting, someone I had not yet met. We got to chatting and he found out about my lung cancer diagnosis. He was the first one to ask, “how long did you smoke?

Now, I know my husband was about to jump in but I didn’t need him to. I am able to answer these questions, as a matter of fact, I give them the famous line among us lung cancer survivors that all you need are lungs and then let them know about the treatment that I was on or something else to continue the conversation but slightly change the direction he had it headed.

"Oh, did you quit smoking?"

The second most notable time that I was confronted with the lung cancer stigma was from a stranger. My sister and I were boarding a flight to Washington, DC to attend the Hope Summit hosted by Lungevity. We were talking about what the weekend entailed and other details.

The person behind us asked about the conference and we chatted a little bit about it. It came out that I was surviving a stage IV diagnosis and that was when they asked, “Oh, did you quit smoking?” I remember telling them that I was a never smoker and that my oncologist had told me that I just had “bad luck”.

An educated, empathic reminder

The best way to handle these questions, even though they are very intrusive, is to educate and remember that even if you did smoke, no one deserves lung cancer. A lung cancer diagnosis is devastating, and statistics show that there will be about 235,760 new cases of lung cancer in 2021 with 119,100 in men and 116,660 in women.1

I'd like to hear about your experiences. Share your thoughts on the topics of stigma and lung cancer in the comments.

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