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One in 16 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer during their lifetime. These patients often experience stigma-related consequences of the disease.

Lack of advocacy, low rates of long-term survival, and misinformation about addiction all contribute to lung cancer stigma. This can lead to less funding for disease research, a delay in patients seeking treatment, and reduced social support, according to the American Lung Association.

It’s important to understand and fight the stigma of lung cancer.

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Lung Cancer Causes: More Than Smoking

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in the United States. Often, patients are made to feel personally responsible for their illness given lung cancer’s association with smoking.

Smoking tobacco remains the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, responsible for 80% to 90% of related deaths. However, 10% to 20% of lung cancer patients have never smoked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s between 20,000 and 40,000 never-smoking Americans diagnosed with lung cancer each year.

According to the American Lung Association, other factors beyond cigarette smoke can increase lung cancer risks. Those include:

  • A history of lung disease.
  • Radon gas exposure.
  • Asbestos exposure.
  • Air pollution.

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates.

Never-smoking lung cancer would be one of the top ten most common cancer in the United States if these cases were separated from smoking-related ones, says Dr. Timothy Burns, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

“There is a stigma associated with lung cancer even in never-smokers,” Dr. Burns says. “They’re always asked about smoking.”

Why Is There a Lung Cancer Stigma?

Unlike with breast and prostate cancer, there are fewer lung cancer survivors to advocate for a cure and put a face to the disease, Dr. Burns says.

“In general, we haven’t really had our Ryan White or Magic Johnson,” he says, referring to their campaigns to bring awareness to HIV/AIDS. “Unfortunately, and this is slowly changing, there haven’t been many survivors of lung cancer.

“If you’re going to advocate, you need survivors. Overall, the five-year survival is only 17%. This is an area we have to do a lot better at.”

And although anti-tobacco campaigns have saved countless lives, lung cancer has now become society’s “smoker’s disease.” People often place blame on patients without nuance or understanding of the power of addiction.

Other causes of lung cancer are not as publicized, Dr. Burns says. This further contributes to the stigma that lung cancer patients are to blame for their disease. These beliefs often overlook the victims of secondhand smoke, too.

“Everyone probably knows someone who has been diagnosed with lung cancer,” Dr. Burns says. “There are a lot of other diseases that can be behaviorally related — heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver failure … but lung cancer has always had a stigma about it. People just haven’t talked about it.”

Understanding the stigma can be an important first step in helping society to overcome it. For more information on UPMC Hillman Cancer Center’s efforts in fighting lung cancer and all other types, visit our website.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.