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The stigma of lung cancer

My mother has lung cancer. She never smoked.

I recall the moment I heard the news. I was at work, and I immediately left my office in tears and aimlessly wandered nearby neighborhoods, unable to make sense of this new reality or my own complex range of emotions. Once I began telling co-workers and friends, I began to see a trend as the typical response went something like, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Did she smoke?" This, undoubtedly, is an innocuous and rational question. We have heard about the perils of smoking for decades. However, it highlights the troubling reality that lung cancer carries a stigma.

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Many view lung cancer as something that an individual brought upon themselves through their own behavior and choices. The American Lung Association's opinion research revealed that approximately 10 percent of people feel that smokers actually deserve lung cancer, and a much larger percentage feel that they assume responsibility for having cancer. Over time, I began to wonder, "if she had smoked, would my mother, or me, be somehow less deserving of sympathy and compassion?" It is now clear to me that making such a distinction is both irrelevant and cruel.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death. By a long shot, actually — and this is true both nationally and in Maryland. Lung cancer accounts for the highest percentage of all cancer related deaths in the country, including Maryland, and it represents the second leading cause of all deaths in the U.S., second only to heart disease. Among those with lung cancer, nearly 18 percent never smoked, and another 60 percent are former smokers who have successfully quit. Let's not forget that the other 21 percent with lung cancer who currently smoke should not be condemned to a life of suffering and discomfort while their families endure loss and heartache.

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For some time following her diagnosis, I began to explore online journals and the Internet, looking for something to hang my hope on. This only caused me to recognize how much lung cancer research and treatment is neglected in relation to other forms of cancer.

To be sure, I'm massively supportive of the incredibly successful awareness campaigns around breast cancer. The stories, the work, the donations, the research and the people behind these efforts are nothing short of inspirational. I tune in to Monday Night Football and see 250-pound linebackers donning pink cleats in support of Breast Cancer Awareness month. I see the commercials, and I see friends running 10Ks for an incredibly important cause. Yet I remain troubled at how little attention and funding lung cancer receives, or the many other forms of cancer, for that matter, that are responsible for the deaths of many wonderful people. Did you know that November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month? Did you even know one existed? This is not to say that the campaigns around breast cancer should tone it down — far from it; rather, we should make sure that all forms of cancer are given adequate attention, support, funding and opportunities to be better understood.

Lung cancer research is grossly underfunded. Federal research spending in fiscal year 2012 for lung cancer totaled $231.2 million, according to information compiled by the Lung Cancer Alliance. Compare that to the $1.043 billion devoted to breast cancer, or the $378 million and $354 million for prostate and colon cancer, respectively. Such massive discrepancies highlight the success of the breast cancer awareness campaign, and the potential impact of the stigma associated with lung cancer. When you consider these funding figures in relation to mortality rates in 2012, $1,442 of federal research funding was devoted to lung cancer per death. In contrast, $26,398 was spent on breast cancer per death.

My mother's life is worth more. Put a different way, her health is not worth less than others with different forms of cancer.

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I have two requests. First, I ask that anyone reading this cast aside your initial beliefs about lung cancer. If a friend tells you that someone they care about has lung cancer, think about how you'd respond if you were told they had breast cancer. We should not react with a measured degree of sympathy depending upon the kind of cancer or what any given individual may have done differently to prevent it. Cancer is a tragic disease, and any chance for a positive outcome typically involves significant stress, pain and reduced quality of life.

Second, I ask for support of campaigns that address all forms of cancer. Lung cancer would benefit from more research looking at targeted therapies and the impact of more regular screenings among those at high risk. Additional funding could also help educate the public and eliminate the stigma associated with lung cancer; this stigma is an unnecessary burden that anyone with cancer or a loved one with cancer should not have to face.

Eric Rossen is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist in Maryland. His mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. His email is eric.rossen@gmail.com.

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