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​Lung cancer can affect anyone, even nonsmokers, yet the stigma persists

Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

About 20% of people who die of lung cancer have never used any form of tobacco. Yet, too many people, including health care providers, believe that lung cancer occurs almost exclusively in current or former smokers. As a result, patients may delay getting their symptoms checked and clinicians may be less likely to consider a diagnosis of lung cancer in a patient with symptoms, particularly if the patient is young.  

“When patients present with symptoms of lung cancer that have persisted for a few weeks without an obvious alternative explanation, they need to be evaluated for lung cancer regardless of whether they ever smoked,” said Rich Wender, MD, our chief cancer control officer (pictured here). “The reality is lung cancer in non-smokers is all too common. In fact, if it were tracked as a separate cancer, it would rank in the top 10 leading causes of cancer death.”  (For more information on why nonsmokers get lung cancer, read this story on cancer.org.)

Stigma and blame often accompany a lung cancer diagnosis. Finding out you have cancer is devastating. But lung cancer is unique because some people are quick to assume that it is the patient’s fault.  

“Patients tell us that when they receive a lung cancer diagnosis, the first thing they hear is, ‘I didn’t realize you smoked,’” said Bob Smith, PhD, senior vice president, Cancer Screening. “They feel blamed for their disease.” 

Tobacco control efforts, which have saved millions of lives, have unfortunately contributed to the stigma, not just against smoking, but also against people who smoke and who have lung cancer.  

“One of the things we simply must change is the sense that any lung cancer patient feels like they need to tell the people around them that they are not responsible for their cancer,” said Bob. “Even people who previously smoked aren’t to blame. The tobacco industry created and aggressively marketed an addictive product that increases cancer risk.”  

There is hope today for lung cancer patients. For decades, there wasn't much doctors could do to treat lung cancer. Today, we have a screening test for patients who have no symptoms but are considered to be at high risk due to smoking. We also have new diagnostic tests — including comprehensive biomarker testing — to determine if a patient with an advanced lung cancer will benefit from new targeted therapies. Other patients can be ideal candidates for new immunotherapy agents.  

“Never have we had so much hope,” said Rich. 

Reducing tobacco use remains a priority for ACS as we attack cancer from every angle. There are still between 38-40 million people who smoke, and tobacco remains the top cause of preventable death in the U.S., associated with 13 cancers, including lung cancer.

“Helping smokers quit remains one of the most important public health opportunities we face in our mission to save lives,” Rich said. 

Visit cancer.org to learn more about lung cancer.




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