My father, Kenneth Becker, died less than three weeks ago after battling lung cancer for more than four years. He had recently turned 67. Before you ask, he was never a smoker. But the fact that most people did ask is the topic of an excellent New York Times article by Jane Brody, entitled, “Blame’s Net Catches Lung Cancer Patients”.
In her article (part one of a two-parter), Brody demonstrates that the attitude that most people with lung cancer willfully brought it upon themselves is more than just unfair. It leads to real consequences for smokers and non-smokers alike who face this leading cause of cancer death. As our own Dr. Michael Thun says in the article, “Lung cancer is underfunded and a major reason is the idea that it’s all related to smoking and it’s the smoker’s fault…. This stigma has influenced both advocacy and research dollars.”
Between ten and 15 percent of all lung cancer patients never smoked or lived with a smoker, but so what? Do people who knowingly raise their risk of cancer deserve to die? Of course not. Like other cancers, lung cancer can appear without identifiable risk factors, and some smokers would have gotten lung cancer without ever having smoked. A recent study by Dr. Thun found lung cancer among non-smokers would still be one of the top ten leading causes of cancer death. By no means am I giving a pass to smoking, as we know that it raises the risk of lung cancer ten-fold. However, it is clear that blaming the patient is not only non-productive, it can be downright wrong.
I sometimes wonder how a questioner would react if I said that yes, my dad had smoked for years (again, he never did). Would the person feel less sorry for him? For me? For my mother, widowed before she retired? In the end, the opinion of one person doesn’t matter, but the opinion held by the majority has contributed to lung cancer’s dubious number one ranking.
What exactly is the lung cancer funding situation? The American Cancer Society currently funds 995 active research grants, of which 95 are related to lung cancer. In terms of dollars, more than $54 million of the $470 million we’ve committed to active research – or about 11 percent – goes to lung cancer studies. These numbers seem big, but remember, lung cancer kills more people each year than the next three leading causes of cancer deaths combined.
The group WTF (which stands for Where’s the Funding) Lung Cancer and others have admirably brought this funding shortfall to the public’s attention. They have made no secret of their feeling that our own organization does not fund enough in this area. But not a lot of people know that, with the exception of disparities, the American Cancer Society does not seek to balance or prioritize our research funding by cancer site. Rather, we support what is called “investigator initiated” research, empowering applicants to determine where funding is aimed, based on the best science and the most promising areas where they can make a difference.
Lung cancer is clearly a disease where prevention would make an enormous impact on incidence and mortality, but not for everyone. Not for my dad. Like many others, I and the American Cancer society would like to see us stop asking essentially whether a patient deserves their illness and focus instead on eliminating this stigma, so everyone with this disease can have a decent chance at long-term survival.