Is There a Stigma in Lung Cancer Research Funding?
Last updated: February 2020
It is estimated that nearly 160,000 Americans died from lung cancer in 2016.1 That’s a staggering number! Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women - more people die of lung cancer than of breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. So one might assume that lung cancer gets the most research dollars from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). But this is not the case.
The case for more lung cancer research funding
In FY2015, the NCI invested $256.2 million in lung cancer research. Seems like a large number, and it is. However, the NCI spent $543.7 million on breast cancer research that year. Why the discrepancy? According to the NCI, “when making decisions about which research projects to fund, NCI leadership focuses on supporting the best science, not setting funding targets for specific research categories or disease areas.”2 That makes sense, but it’s still hard to comprehend the seemingly, in relative terms, low research funding for the cancer that kills the most Americans. Many lung cancer advocates cry foul, saying that the stigma of smoking is the true reason that lung cancer doesn’t get more research funding. Four times as many people die from lung cancer than breast cancer yet breast cancer research gets twice the government funding. It’s a strong argument. I’m a nonsmoker who got lung cancer, and I felt the stigma when people always asked me if I smoked. It is estimated that up to 24,000 nonsmokers died from lung cancer last year.3 And that number is growing, especially among women. Another estimated 80,000 deaths were former smokers.4 In my opinion, whether lung cancer deaths were smokers, former smokers, or nonsmokers shouldn’t be a determining factor in whether research gets funded in lung cancer.
Research fuels new treatment breakthroughs
I strongly believe that the NCI needs to increase funding for cancer research of all types. Instead of slicing the pie differently, how about we make a bigger pie? As a cancer research evangelist, I don’t begrudge the money spent on research on breast cancer or any other cancers at all. I believe in the approach that we are all in this together, whatever type of cancer. But as a lung cancer survivor and advocate, and I do wish that more lung cancer projects would get funding. We’ve made great progress - In the past decade, 13 new lung cancer medicines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.5 And as of 2016, scientists have discovered 18 gene mutations. Many of these biomarkers are treatable with existing drugs, so research does make a difference. Just think of how much farther we’d be if we had more lung cancer research funding!
I’d like to think that the stigma is not the reason for the discrepancy in lung cancer research funding versus other cancer types. And I hope Congress will continue to fund research at the NCI across all cancers. Research does matter. The fact that I have a friend living 13 years after a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis is living proof. This would not be possible without research funding that led to so many discoveries.
Happy Lung Cancer Awareness Month! What does self-advocacy mean to you?