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How Do We Win when Even Doctors Buy into the Stigma?

My son, a smoker, once went in the VA hospital complaining of chest pains. They took him seriously, performed all manner of tests on him, and kept him overnight for observation. Until he got the cholesterol and blood glucose results back, his new heart doctor spent some time telling my son about the dangers of smoking.

Once he got the results from the other tests, he said quitting the nicotine habit isn’t as crucial as getting the other problems under control. I was a little surprised by that.

Doctors and misinformation

But, here’s what surprised me even more. I suppose my son countered the doctor’s warnings with arguments about all of those who are being diagnosed with lung cancer who do not smoke. He hears me talk about young nonsmokers who have been diagnosed all of the time and is well aware that I have lost friends to the disease who were still in their twenties when they died.

The doctor, a man maybe in his 50s, argued with him. He would not be convinced that very young people and never-smokers also get diagnosed with lung cancer. Perhaps it is rare. It must be, based on the American Cancer Society (ACS) stats that say the average age of someone with lung cancer is 70. The ACS also says that about 80% of those diagnosed with the disease got it from smoking. That may be, but I know far more never-smokers and people under the age of 55 who have been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer than I do people over 65 who smoke or have a smoking history.

Our doctors should be our ally

Maybe younger people feel better or are more inclined to be activists than older people with the disease. Just take a look at the bloggers here on At 65, I am probably one of the oldest ones writing articles. I was diagnosed right after I turned 59, so I also didn’t qualify as “old” when diagnosed. Whatever the case, it is very evident that young people, the majority of whom never smoked, do get lung cancer.

It deeply disturbs me when I hear stories of doctors refusing to accept that people other than smokers can and do get lung cancer. It distresses me because as long as that belief is allowed to go on, nonsmoking younger people will continue to be misdiagnosed until their cancer has become critical.

It is hard enough when the general populace believe they are exempt from the disease because they aren’t old and/or they never smoked (or quit many years ago). It is worse still when the medical field is still so misinformed. I wonder, how many lives have been lost because of these closely held myths?

It’s time to raise our voices together

What do we do to combat the myths? How do we get the word out to physicians that their long-held beliefs about lung cancer and who gets it are wrong? Why aren’t the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and other large and respected organizations raising a bigger, louder voice to educate those who diagnose us?

I can’t tell you how frustrated I became when my son was telling me about his heart doctor’s beliefs. It is no wonder, then, that the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) won’t fund lung cancer research at reasonable rates. After all, if only old smokers get the disease … they aren’t worth saving anyway, right? (Unless they happen to be your mom, dad, grandma or grandpa … then their lives mean a little more…)

I just want to S-C-R-E-A-M! Anyone want to join me? Maybe if we scream loud enough, someone will hear us…

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Yolanda Brunson-Sarrabo moderator
    8 months ago

    The sentiments are the same and that is something has to be done in eliminating the stigma with lung cancer. We cannot move forward with such a grey cloud on this important conversation. The more we approach our medical team, and all working with you on your journey on the importance on your lung cancer treatment, is the right step in breaking the stigma. You must stay viligent and vocal.

  • pantelas
    8 months ago

    Donna, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had a noted lung cancer doc tell me that the patients he sees that tell him that they never smoked are lying. It’s a hell of a thing for a doc to say, but even worse that he believes it!

    Both American Cancer Society and American Lung Association feed into this by spending all their efforts on smoking cessation efforts and anti smoking campaigns instead of the treatment and/or curative research we need.

    Thanks for your post!

  • Jbarano
    8 months ago

    I can also attest to this dilemma. My cancer was caught by accident with a CEA test done by the lab my husband worked in. I had no symptoms and was into fitness most of my life. Also, never smoked. My primary doc had to be convinced to order a chest xray, as she put it, “you’re so healthy and all of your other blood work is great.” I’m not sure how we get the word out, but everyone needs to know if you have lungs, you’re at risk for lung cancer.

  • Saltwater
    8 months ago

    I can attest. Diagnosed stage iv at 40. Never smoked in my life. Going on 6 long years of battle

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