Lung Cancer: What a Shame

Kathy Forbes is a three-time cancer survivor, including lung cancer, who never smoked and wants us to change the rhetoric around lung cancer.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it typically triggers empathy and our innate sense to be supportive.  Unfortunately, our reactions are not impartial to all cancers, and that is especially true for lung cancer.

Although lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canadians, and the leading cause of cancer deaths (27% of all cancer deaths), some lung cancer patients often feel more shame than they do support. The most common reason for this is that lung cancer is associated with smoking, which is perceived as a personal choice that can have a deadly consequence. Although the majority of lung cancers are linked to smoking, 15% of lung cancer patients are non-smokers.  

“With lung cancer there is a very negative stigma attached to it,” says Kathy Forbes, a non-smoker and three-time cancer survivor, including lung cancer. “With a lung cancer diagnosis, there is almost a defensive embarrassment telling people because everyone just assumes you were a smoker. Even for those who did smoke, they are made to feel blame and guilt for what ‘they did to themselves’. The same level of social support is not available for lung cancer patients like it is for breast or prostate cancers, even though smoking can play a part in those cancers as well.”

It is a common complaint for lung cancer patients to say that the stigma they experience from family, friends, the public and even health care providers is one thing, but the other is that the system can also play a role in stigma. “For a cancer that doesn’t have a good outcome, there isn’t always a good support system for patients. Despite how common it is, there aren’t the support groups that you see for other cancers. You really feel on your own, and many patients feel the guilt and shame that is placed on them. Some of them feel that they don’t even deserve the help, and that’s not right,” says Forbes.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Raising awareness about this disease helps eliminate stigma and increase support. Although smoking significantly increases your risk of developing lung cancer, many other cancers are linked to smoking too. Furthermore, smoking itself is a very powerful addiction to nicotine – not simply a ‘bad habit’. Therefore, we cannot simply discriminate against lung cancer because of its association to smoking. It is also important to know that other risks for developing lung cancer include second-hand smoke, radon, asbestos, air pollution, occupational exposure to certain chemicals, personal or family history of lung disease and exposure to radiation.

When it comes to lung cancer, the real shame is that we don’t always equally support the 26,000 Canadians who will be diagnosed with this scary and life-threatening disease. Let’s take Forbes’ advice, “Try to be more sensitive, understanding and don’t’ pass judgment. Treat lung cancer like you would any other disease and be compassionate and supportive.”

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