Is Your Cancer Your Fault?

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.

About asbecker

is Director of Media Relations. He is the New York-based member of the national media relations team. His work includes all patient and fami
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4 Responses to Is Your Cancer Your Fault?

  1. Miss Millenium says:

    A few years ago I was able to get my hands on the ACS records from 1976 – 2006 comparing research $ spent on lung cancer vs. breast cancer. I was astonished and questioned ACS about it. They told me basically what you wrote above which is that you’ll go for the lowest hanging fruit in terms of research. Essentially where you can get the biggest bang for your buck. But you already know those details and I thank you for pointing it out.

    But the most devastating thing about lung cancer that I find so astonishing is that when a member from ACS loses someone to lung cancer who didn’t smoke, they are angered by the associated stigma, which is what the lung cancer community has been feeling for decades. Yet it is ACS who put the stigma there in the first place and continues to do so with their anti-tobacco campaigns. The fact that it was ACS funded research that found that tobacco causes lung cancer and that they used that data point as a springboard for their anti-tobacco campaigns is the exact reason why people look negatively upon people with lung cancer. Because ACS said that if you smoke, you’ll get lung cancer. And then the rest of the public filled in the rest of that sentence with the “associated blame of you did it to yourself.”

    I admire your blog post, but I am saddened that your father had to die in order for you to write it. But now that you’ve written it, I hope you team up with your colleagues who also work for ACS and who have also lost loved ones to lung cancer who didn’t smoke, to make a change. (email me, I’ll tell you who they are). I hope that you use your position to influence the decision makers to invest in early detection research for lung cancer. The disease so desperately needs a non-invasive method and God knows we need all the help we can get on the inside of ACS.


    • asbecker says:

      The stigma associating lung cancer and tobacco use is unfortunate, and I would like it to end, but the fact remains that tobacco use is indeed responsible for the overwhelming majority of cases of lung cancer, as well as several other forms of cancer. As I note in the original post, some unknown percentage of smokers would likely have gotten lung cancer irrespective of their tobacco use, and I would never support blaming a patient for raising his or her risk.

      However, the lifesaving work the American Cancer Society has done in tobacco control should not be construed as anything other than an effort to save lives. We study, advocate, and support patients no matter the risk factor.

  2. Miss Millenium says:

    I 100% agree that the American Cancer Society has done life saving work with their tobacco control efforts. I’m not discounting that by any means. However, as you pointed out in your post, “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.” ; what Cancer patients and family members want ACS to do is to abandon this school of thought and focus research dollars by cancer site. Prostate cancer has a 99.9% survival rate. It doesn’t get much better than that. Breast cancer has a 90% survival rate thanks to all of the research dollars put into early detection. But why can’t ACS, who hasbeen branded as the Godfather of Cancer Research focus on sites such as colon cancer, brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, or lung cancer where the survival rates are not nearly as high? Lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the #1 cancer killer 23 years ago and yet, still not a lot of research dollars are put into early detection research.

    The American Cancer Society has taught us that early detection saves lives, so why aren’t research dollars going into finding a non-invasive early detection method for lung cancer?We know people are going to smoke. We can’t get rid of tobacco. Just like we know people are going to eat sugar and fast food, we can’t totally get rid of colon cancer. But we certainly can add to the quality of one’s life if we had an early detection method for lung cancer.

    I’m sorry, but the ratio amount that the ACS continues to spend on research for cancers that have a 90% or 99.9% survival rate is nauseating compared to lung cancer that has a 16.2% survival rate. The 5 year survival rate has not climbed much in the past 5 decades for lung cancer, but it certainly has improved for both breast, prostate and other cancers.

    So what I want and am asking YOU to do, is to use your influence (and you are not the only person at ACS who lost someone to lung cancer, there are other ACS workers there as well) and persuade the powers that be to spread the money around a little more evenly. Not just the biggest bang for the buck.

    Again I’m truly sorry for your loss but you have the opportunity to make a difference and invoke change that has been long overdue at the American Cancer Society in terms of how they spend their research dollars. Anything you can do to get a little more for lung cancer would be appreciated.

    Thank you.

  3. darenberg says:

    Thanks you for writing what I have been preaching for years. The public health campaigns to get people to stop smoking use stigma as a very effective tool, but it is not a “smart bomb” and victims of smoking related diseases are collateral damage. My problem is that this collateral damage seems only to affect lung cancer patients. We don’t shun patients with heart disease (nor any of the other cancers that disproportionately occur in smokers) the way we do lung cancer victims. Until this stops, we will have to deal with the funding disparities that lung cancer researchers (like myself) must fight against in order to continue our work. The disproportionate funding of breast cancer over lung cancer is one reason that so very little of my charitable giving goes to the ACS.

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