November 1st marked lung cancer awareness month in Canada and the US. It received little fan-fare and still largely goes un-noticed. After all we don’t have cute logos, fancy ribbons, big marketing campaigns, and many media outlets just don’t pick up the lung cancer story. So what do we have? We have numbers, we have stigma, and we have hope.
Every year 28,4001 Canadians and 221,2002 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer. Of those diagnosed, 20,8003 in Canada and 157,4994 in the US will have their lives taken from this disease. The truth is that while many other cancers have improved 5-year survival rates, lung cancer still remains one of the lowest at about 17%5.
One of the many reasons for this in my humble opinion is the lack of lung cancer literacy, or for lack of better words awareness. With most diseases, awareness doesn’t always mean action, but for us, awareness and education is key in convincing people to act. Most North Americans think that breast cancer is the largest cancer killer, but in fact, it is lung cancer. Actually, lung cancer takes more lives than breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers combined6.
If one has asked me what type of cancer I thought I may get in my lifetime, seven years ago before lung cancer happened to me, I would have thought it would be breast cancer. After all, I am a woman with breasts and like many, I didn’t think that because I was human and had lungs that I’d be at risk. The reality is, one of the fastest growing segments in lung cancer is the population of young, non/never smokers (17.9%)7. Add to that the population of people who had previously quit smoking (60%)8, and you begin to get a different picture of lung cancer.
The sad truth is that lung cancer is usually diagnosed in late stages (Stage 3 and 4) meaning the disease is already advanced, complicated and difficult to treat. Another reality faced by patients and their caregivers is the stigma associated with the disease. We have known the connection between tobacco products and cancer for decades, the problem is the widespread assumption that it is the only cause of lung cancer, leading to a blame the victim mentality. The truth is, the greatest risk factor for getting lung cancer is having lungs. That of course is followed by tobacco, radon, genetic and many unknown factors.
Lung cancer is not just one disease, it is far more complicated than was once thought. It is categorized as small cell (SCLC) or non-small cell (NSCLC), but can then further be divided by cell type and beyond. In the past decade alone, they have discovered numerous genetic drivers to lung cancer, each requiring a treatment plan that caters to the nature of the cancer.
Despite the abysmal mortality rate and the growing number of newly diagnosed patients, funding for lung cancer research is grossly disproportionate. In the US the National Institute of Health Research (NIH) calculated the dollars allocated per death across many disease areas and found that lung cancer received only $1479 as compared to $2131 for heart disease, $5,804 for colon cancer, $19,250 for breast, and $9,647 for all cancers9. In Canada, only 7% of cancer specific government research funding is allocated to lung cancer but what is worse is less than 1% of private cancer donations goes towards lung cancer research10.
It may sound very doom and gloom, but there are many rays of hope. Through the dedication of researchers, oncologists, nurses, pathologists, patients, and so many more, a number of breakthroughs have been made in diagnostics, less invasive surgical options, revolutionary treatments such as targeted therapies and immunotherapy and are being used in clinics today. The winds of change are blowing and with more awareness and research dollars, real change can be made. You can help by donating to lung cancer research, volunteering at a local organization, being compassionate to patients, or by sharing this article.
1. Canadian Cancer Society – 2016 Canadian Cancer Statistics. Available at: http://www.cancer.ca/~/media/cancer. ca/CW/cancer information/cancer 101/Canadian cancer statistics/Canadian-Cancer-Statistics-2016-EN.pdf?la=en. Last accessed on October 19, 2016.
2. American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2015. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2015. pp.4.
3. Canadian Cancer Society – 2016 Canadian Cancer Statistics. Available at: http://www.cancer.ca/~/media/cancer. ca/CW/cancer information/cancer 101/Canadian cancer statistics/Canadian-Cancer-Statistics-2016-EN.pdf?la=en. Last accessed on October 19, 2016.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Detection: Deaths: National Vital Statistics Report, Final Data for 2012. NVSR Volume 63, Number 9. 85 pp. (PHS) 2014 – 1120, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr63/nvsr63_09.pdf
5. Lung Cancer Canada. 2015 Faces of Lung Cancer Report, Toronto: Lung Cancer Canada, 2015. pp6.
6. Lung Cancer Canada. 2015Faces of Lung Cancer Report, Toronto: Lung Cancer Canada, 2015. pp6.
7. Centers for Disease and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, “Cigarette Smoking Among Adults- United States. 2006,” November 9, 2007/56(44): 1157-1161, Table 2.
8. Centers for Disease and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, “Cigarette Smoking Among Adults- United States. 2006,” November 9, 2007/56(44): 1157-1161, Table 2.
9. Funding Source: http://report.nih.gov/categorical_spending.aspx Source of Actual Deaths: Centers for Disease Control and Detection: Deaths: National Vital Statistics Reports, Final Data for 2012. NVSR Volume 63, Number 9. 85pp. (PHS) 2014 – 1120 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr63/nvsr63-09.pdf
10. Canadian Cancer Research Alliance 2007, CRA 2009, Canadian Cancer Society 2010.