A recent survey finds that many Canadians have little sympathy for lung cancer patients, mistakenly believing that they brought the disease upon themselves.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Global Lung Cancer Coalition, found that one in five Canadians admits feeling less sympathetic toward lung cancer patients than those with other forms of cancer.

The survey polled over 16,000 people in 16 countries about their attitudes to lung cancer. The study found that people in countries with lower smoking rates had a greater tendency to admit that they felt less sympathetic to people with lung cancer compared with other types of cancer.

Dr. James Gowing, an oncologist at Cambridge Memorial Hospital, says the stigma against lung cancer patients is unfair, because no one ever deserves the disease -- and many with the disease never smoked.

"That one in five Canadians doesn't have any sympathy for someone with lung cancer, I think is appalling," he told CTV Southwestern Ontario's Janine Grespan.

Gowing, who is the co-chair of the Cancer Advocacy Coalition of Canada, notes that 15 per cent of lung cancer victims never smoked.

"The 85 per cent that did are human beings, the same as you and I. Life is difficult for them because lung cancer is a terrible disease," he says.

The research also reveals misperceptions that may contribute to unsympathetic attitudes.

Lung cancer was not identified by those surveyed as the leading cause of cancer death in Canada, although it is.

The poll also revealed that Canadians believed that breast cancer was as deadly as lung cancer. In fact, while there are about the same number of cases diagnosed each year, lung cancer kills four times as many Canadians than breast cancer each year -- about 20,000.

Heather McQuaid, an oncology social worker who helps cancer patients deal with emotional issues after their diagnosis, says she's certainly noticed that lung cancer patients feel stigmatized, even if they never smoked or quit years before.

"The response is ‘Well, you smoked.' Or ‘Do you smoke?' That's almost always the first question, rather than an empathic response such as, ‘I'm sorry to hear that.' So already, they feel prejudged.

The stigmatization of lung cancer often causes many patients to feel guilt and shame, which contributes to depression or anxiety, affecting quality of life and possibly increased morbidity.

Gowing says the stigma highlighted in this study is likely part of the reason lung cancer gets so little funding for research and treatments.

Not that long ago, he notes, the death rate for breast cancer was higher than for lung cancer. Now that's reversed, with more people dying from lung cancer than breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Death rates for breast cancer have plummeted largely due to more research leading to improved treatments. Lung cancer, meanwhile, still gets little attention and little funding. In 2007, the major cancer research funders invested only about $8 million into lung cancer research, compared with a $25 million in breast cancer research.

Heather Borquez, the CEO and president of The Canadian Lung Association says the survey results raise important issues.

"The results of this study raise the question of how stigma towards the victims of lung cancer – smokers and non-smokers alike – impacts the support they receive, particularly from the healthcare system," she said in a statement.