Stigma associated with lung cancer as a ‘smokers’ disease’ is costing lives through inadequate detection of early disease, deficiencies in care and lack of research, according to the Lung Foundation Australia.
Launching a ‘call to action’ to improve lung cancer outcomes, Lung Foundation CEO Heather Allan said that stereotyping and lack of support contributed to the disturbing five-year survival rate of 15%, compared to 90% for breast cancer and 94% for prostate cancer.
“Despite being Australia’s biggest cancer killer – responsible for more deaths than breast, prostate and ovarian cancer combined – lung cancer gets the least empathy and understanding from Australians, largely due to its association with smoking,” she said.
A survivor of breast cancer, Ms Allan said she had experienced the disparities first-hand.
“I received nothing but respect – something that all cancer patients deserve considering the challenges they are facing,” she said.
“But unlike other cancers, lung cancer patients face constant questioning around their earlier life choices that may or may not have contributed to the disease. Lung cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither should we.”
In a global study of 15 countries, Australians had the least sympathy for people diagnosed with lung cancer.
“These national attitudes translate to low policy support, with less than five cents of every cancer research dollar in Australia going to lung cancer,” Ms Allan said.
In fact, most people now diagnosed with lung cancer had quit smoking, often many years before their diagnosis. In addition, a substantial minority of lung cancer occurred in never-smokers.
The Lung Foundation’s campaign aims to raise the profile and reduce the stigma of lung cancer, prioritise efforts to detect early, curable disease, improve access to best-practice care, and increase research funding.
It says government should fund public health campaigns that raise awareness about the seriousness of lung cancer, discourage smoking without demonising the person, and encourage smokers to seek medical help early without fear of discrimination.
The Lung Foundation has also called on government to fund an awareness campaign targeting both the public and healthcare professional about early symptoms, especially cough, and to rapidly implement a national screening strategy.
Steps towards best-practice care should ensure all patients have early access to specialised care services, whoever they are and wherever they live, and clear minimum standards should be implemented to address variations in care.
Finally, research offers hope for people with lung cancer, whether for a cure or improvement in quality of life. The Lung Foundation has called for research funding of $20 million annually by 2020.