Coping with Cancer

Overcoming the Stigma of Lung Cancer

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

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 percent 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 Zane Hammoud, M.D., a thoracic surgeon at Henry Ford Health System.

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. Hammoud says.

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

Strengthen awareness: Not everyone who’s diagnosed with lung cancer is a smoker. In fact, about 10 to 20 percent of 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.

Avoid blame and shame: Remember: Lung cancer affects non-smokers too. 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.

Related Topic: What to Say to Someone With Cancer

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.

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,” Dr. Hammoud says. “After about 20 years of being smoke-free, your risk of lung cancer starts to approach a non-smoker.”

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. Zane Hammoud is a board-certified thoracic surgeon and member of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute at Henry Ford Health System.