Every year, lung cancer kills more men and women than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined in the United States. Lung cancer begins when abnormal cells grow in one or both lungs. Abnormal cells can invade healthy lung tissue, form tumors and prevent the lung from functioning correctly, resulting in less oxygen circulating in the body.
Unlike other cancer diagnoses, people diagnosed with lung cancer experience stigma rooted in lack of information and understanding. Lung cancer is seen as a “smokers disease” and those with a history of smoking often feel shame or blame for having brought lung cancer on themselves. It’s important to remember that nobody keeps smoking because they want to get lung cancer, but rather many struggle with quitting, due to how addictive and habit forming nicotine is. Many people began smoking when they were young and before the negative effects were as widely known as they are today.
The stigma surrounding lung cancer affects people by:
- Delayed diagnosis
- Underestimated risk
- Isolation and harms to mental health
- Less public support and underfunding of research
According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer stigma is caused by the lack of public knowledge, perceived responsibility, and low survival rate. Many do not know the risk factors, symptoms, when to screen and how much lung cancer contributes to overall cancer deaths – delaying diagnosis. Further, misunderstanding about addiction feed into the unfair perception that lung cancer is a person’s fault, and that diagnosis is a “death sentence.” MemorialCare looks to face this stigma head on by educating the community on lung cancer and working with the community to remove the shame associated with smoking. Individuals who might be at an increased risk of lung cancer can be referred to get a lung cancer screening at the Lung Program at MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Medical Center by their physician.
The Lung Program at Long Beach Medical Center offers advanced state-of-the-art technology, including a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan that increases early detection by 85%, and comprehensive care for the treatment and prevention of lung cancer and lung abnormalities. The program’s care team consists of physician experts, a lung nurse navigator who guides patients through the screening and treatment process, and a thoracic nurse who provides education and resources during a patient’s treatment plan.
A lung cancer screening is recommended yearly for people who:
- Are between 50 and 80 years old, and
- Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and
- Have a history of smoking (20 pack years or more).
- A pack year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year.
Other than smoking, you are at greater risk for lung cancer if you have a family history of lung cancer or are exposed to secondhand smoke or carcinogenic agents like asbestos, radon, hard metals and air pollution. Each year 20,000 – 40,000 cases of lung cancer happen to people who have never smoked or have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Since symptoms of lung cancer, such as persistent cough, shortness of breath, blood in sputum, weight loss, chest pain and wheezing do not typically show until advanced stages, early detection is key and will improve the survival rate of patients. It’s important to speak with a primary care physician to determine eligibility for a potentially life-saving screening.
Each new diagnosis of lung cancer is another human being who deserves compassionate and empathetic treatment. If you overhear stigmatizing language surrounding lung cancer, consider informing the person that lung cancer can affect anyone, and that no one should be blamed for their cancer diagnosis. It is important for people to break the stigma by creating awareness to help encourage smokers or those who may have quit within the last 15 years to not feel shame or fear when coming forward to get screening. If you have questions about lung cancer screening, or wish to take a lung health assessment quiz, visit memorialcare.org/LBlung.