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The Stigma Ends Now

It is time to stop the stigma and realign the way we think about this disease. Lung cancer is a public health problem that needs to be addressed, regardless of how it came about. We need to take care of those who are sick and stop blaming patients for their condition.
11/13/2015 03:34pm ET | Updated November 12, 2016
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Did you smoke? That is often one of the first responses patients hear when they tell people about their lung cancer diagnosis.

For decades lung cancer has been singled out as THE smoker's disease, despite evidence that over 30 other deadly diseases are directly linked to tobacco consumption. In fact, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that breast cancer, prostate cancer, kidney failure and diabetes are among those smoking-related diseases. This connection between tobacco and serious illnesses other than lung cancer has been known for quite a while. The U.S. surgeon general lists smoking as the cause of 21 other fatal diseases, including stomach cancer, liver cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, acute myeloid leukemia, stroke, and heart disease -- which kills more people in the U.S. each year than any other. However, despite that damning evidence, none of those others carry any stigma. Lung cancer is the only disease that is identified by its connection to smoking.

The stigma has been built up through the years by graphic anti-smoking campaigns and a widespread lack of understanding among both physicians and patients. And that stigma has resulted in insufficient funding for research, allowed for a lack of accessible, comprehensive information about the disease, and a perpetuated the notion that patients' are to blame for their condition -- despite many of them having never smoked. Lung cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, and yet it continues to remain obscured by uninformed biases.

In 2013, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that it had officially classified air pollution as a human carcinogen. The WHO specifically emphasized an increase in lung cancer risk as a direct result of exposure to pollution, which has only worsened since then.

This designation is evidence of the reality that there is no one factor that causes a cancer -- whether it is lung cancer, breast cancer, or another. Cancers can be caused by such a vast number of different influences that to identify a single one as the trigger for all cases would be impossible. However, there is a tendency to emphasize individual choices and genetic predispositions while overlooking outside factors in determining cancer risk. The BRCA gene mutations are perhaps the most well known cause of breast cancer, despite the fact that only about 10 percent of patients inherited the disease. By pigeonholing smoking as the cause of lung cancer, we are oversimplifying an extremely complex disease and closing our eyes to the reality of who is really at risk.

It is time to stop the stigma and realign the way we think about this disease. Lung cancer is a public health problem that needs to be addressed, regardless of how it came about. We need to take care of those who are sick and stop blaming patients for their condition. November is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and while a lot has been achieved, a lot still needs to be done as well. The sad truth is that anyone can get lung cancer, regardless of gender, age, race, environmental exposures, smoking or family history. Help raise awareness by sharing this video from The Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and get involved in the fight against lung cancer. It is time to move beyond bias and focus on finding a solution.