Why it’s time to end stigma in lung cancer

General Medical

Dr. Nikki Stamp

What is the leading cause of cancer death in Australia?

The answer may surprise you. It’s not breast cancer, or melanoma. In fact its lung cancer. In 2018, its predicted that 12,741 Australians will be diagnosed with lung cancer. Around 25 people every day lose their lives to lung cancer. A lot of people don’t know that lung cancer is responsible for nearly 20% of all cancer deaths in this country which is more than breast, prostate and ovarian cancer combined.

Unlike a lot of other cancers where significant strides have been made in the treatment, the survival after a diagnosis of lung cancer remains very, very low. The 5 year survival for someone with lung cancer is only 15% and even lower for Aboriginal Australians at 7%. Lung cancer is treated by a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and new drugs that target the tumour cell’s inner workings but only around 20% of people are diagnosed at a time when surgery can help them, which is often their best shot at survival.

Lung cancer carries with it a lot of stigma. In health care, when a disease or a person with a disease is stigmatized, we know that this turns into bad outcomes, even a higher risk of death. Australians are particularly unsympathetic towards people who have lung cancer, because we think that these people smoked, and they only have themselves to blame. In fact, Australians have the least amount of sympathy of any country for those with lung cancer. The negative attitudes towards people with lung cancer have been compared to those with HIV/AIDS, obesity or mental illness and big public campaigns have been required to turn some of this stigma around.

Research relies heavily on funding and support from the community so when we feel so badly about a disease, we aren’t going to get behind it. Less than 5 cents of every dollar spent on cancer research goes towards lung cancer. Most funding goes to breast cancer, gynaecological cancer or brain tumours.

The association with smoking is undeniable but forms a big part of why we’re so unsympathetic towards lung cancer patients. Smoking is associated with dozens of difference cancers and other medical conditions, like strokes, heart disease or bladder cancer, yet lung cancer takes the brunt of our judgement. Around 30% of women who are diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked and 29% of men who have lung cancer have been exposed to substances at work that increase their risk. Even if people have smoked in the past, nobody should ever be so harshly judged that it compromises their life.

This November, we’re aiming to Shine A Light on Lung Cancer to save lives. With proper funding, research and screening, research has shown that we can save lives. It’s time to raise the profile and reduce the stigma of lung cancer by backing campaigns that raise awareness, helping people to quit smoking without making them feel bad and treat everyone with compassion.

It’s also high time to put our money where it matters most and that’s into research and screening programs. Lung cancer screening saves lives and we need to ensure that its funded and available to all Australians.

So this November, please spread the word about lung cancer and help to fight stigma against this deadly disease. For more information, visit Lung Foundation Australia.


Please note: Dr. Nikki's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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