Overcoming The Stigma Of Lung Cancer

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Most of the time, when someone receives a cancer diagnosis, we typically shower them with support and sympathy. But lung cancer patients often have a different experience. About 80 to 90% of lung cancer deaths are related to cigarette smoking, so many people view this cancer as a self-inflicted disease—one that could have been prevented with healthier choices.

“For a lot of people, the thought is, ‘If you’ve been smoking your whole life, what’d you expect?” says Andrew Popoff, M.D., a thoracic surgeon with the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.

Despite understanding the link between smoking and lung cancer, those diagnosed with the disease share many of the same doubts and fears that any other cancer patient harbors. In fact, more than half of people with lung cancer die within one year of being diagnosed.

“More people die of lung cancer every year than prostate, breast and colon cancer combined,” Dr. Popoff says.

So how can you help reduce the stigma — and perhaps the prevalence — of the most lethal form of cancer? Start here:

  1. Strengthen awareness: About 10 to 20% of lung cancer cases are attributed to factors other than smoking, including exposure to radon, asbestos, air pollution, and secondhand smoke. Each year, about 7,000 non-smokers die of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand smoke.
  2. Avoid blame and shame: If a person’s lung cancer is linked to smoking, understand that the habit can be tied to societal, cultural and economic factors. Of course, nicotine’s addictive properties can also be notoriously challenging to shake, too.
  3. Help build community: Since the survival rate of lung cancer is lower than many other types of cancers, there are fewer survivors helping to organize disease-related events and fundraisers. Nonetheless, there are plenty of support groups and resources you can get involved with, including the Lung Cancer Alliance, LUNGevity and the American Lung Association.
  4. Recognize symptoms: The most common symptom of lung cancer is a cough. As a result, the disease is often detected late, contributing to lung cancer’s low survival rate. If a cough has lingered for some time or there have been noticeable changes in breathing patterns, talk with your doctor about lung cancer screening options and other symptoms—especially if you’re a smoker.

Regardless of your perceptions of lung cancer, the best way to lower your risk of getting the disease is to abstain from smoking. Already a smoker? You, too, can correct course: “The lungs have the capacity to recover from the damage of tobacco, so your lung function will improve over time if you stop smoking,” says Dr. Popoff.  “After about 20 years of being smoke-free, your risk of lung cancer starts to approach the risk level of a non-smoker.”

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For help with smoking cessation, visit the Tobacco Treatment Service at Henry Ford or call 1-888-427-7587.

To make an appointment with your doctor to talk about if a lung cancer screening is right for you, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Andrew Popoff, M.D., FACS, is a board-certified thoracic surgeon and fellowship-trained thoracic surgical oncologist specializing in lung and thoracic cancer surgery. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Henry Ford Macomb Medical Pavilion in Clinton Township, and Henry Ford Medical Center -- Columbus in Novi. 

Categories: FeelWell