‘No one deserves lung cancer’: Stigma of disease often tough to handle
Roz Brodsky with her puppy, Julie. Brodsky was diagnosed eight years ago with large-cell lung cancer, after coughing up a small amount of blood.
Published Sunday, December 9, 2012 7:00AM EST
Around the time Roz Brodsky was diagnosed with lung cancer, her cousin learned she had breast cancer. But Brodsky soon realized that the responses to their diseases were very different.
“She had so many groups and organizations coming forward offering to help her: help with getting her kids to school, getting her to her appointments, her housekeeping, there were gift baskets. And don’t get me wrong, that was great for her. But there was nothing for me. Nothing. There wasn’t even a lung cancer support group, even in a city as big as Toronto,” she remembers.
What there was instead was a feeling from many around her that she had somehow brought the disease on herself.
Brodsky had smoked for years before her diagnosis, though she had been able to quit just the month before her diagnosis. But when she would tell people about her diagnosis, the first question they often had was: “Did you smoke?”
But not all lung cancer patients are smokers.
Dr. Natasha Leighl, a medical oncologist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, says about 15 per cent of patients diagnosed never smoked. And she estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of her patients are actually former smokers.
“The vast majority are those who smoked when they were younger, they came to their senses and quit,” Leighl says. “But even though their risk of diagnosis stops increasing after their quit, it never goes back to zero.”
Most lung cancer patients come face-to-face with the stigma of their disease pretty early after diagnosis and soon learn to avoid talking about it at all, says Brodsky.
“Most of the women I know with lung cancer didn’t smoke. So they learn to say right away, ‘I have lung cancer, but I don’t smoke,’ to head off that question at the pass,” she says. “And there isn’t any other cancer patient who has to do that, who has to explain their cancer.”
“I always say, ‘If I told you I had kidney cancer, would you ask me that?’ Because smoking is a risk factor for kidney cancer,” she adds.
It’s also a risk factor for breast cancer, bladder cancer and many other cancers -- yet the issue of smoking rarely comes up for these patients.
There are also plenty of other diseases related to lifestyle, yet few face the stigma that lung cancer faces, Brodsky says.
“You don’t ask people who’ve had heart attacks, ‘How many Big Macs did you eat?’ and you don’t ask people with colon cancer if they ate a high-fat diet,” Brodsky says.
For former smokers, a lung cancer diagnosis can be difficult to accept, says Leighl.
“They did all the hard work of quitting -- because nicotine is incredibly addictive -- they’ve succeeded in that battle, but then when they get ill, the first thing people ask is ‘Did you smoke?’” she says.
Brodsky has grown used to that question and even understands why some people need to ask.
“I think when people hear that someone has cancer, they want to know something that makes them say, ‘This isn’t going to happen to me’,” she says. “Even those who do or did smoke will ask, because they want to find something different about your case, so they can say, ‘Oh, I smoked a little less than you, so I’ll probably be okay.’”
A recent online survey conducted for Lung Cancer Canada found that only 11 per cent of Canadian women know that lung cancer is the top cancer killer of women. More than half of respondents (58 per cent) thought breast cancer was. That may be why, Leighl says, the disease doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of research funds that others do.
“It’s by far the largest cause of cancer-related deaths. It accounts for 27 per cent of cancer deaths, but it attracts only 7 per cent of public research funding, despite the fact that it’s still such a challenge to treat. And it receives less than 1 per cent of public donations,” she says.
Leighl says there have been a number of new exciting treatments developed in recent years, but more research is needed, especially so doctors can understand why the disease is affecting so many people who have never smoked.
“Lung cancer in people who’ve never smoked is becoming increasingly common,” she says. “Women are much more likely to be diagnosed than never-smoker men, and we don’t know why that is.”
Fortunately for Brodsky, her disease was caught in its earliest stages. Though she says the treatments and the surgery were “horrible,” eight years later, the now 54-year-old is cancer-free.
But she continues to advocate for lung cancer patients to remind Canadians that it’s not always a fatal disease; that it affects non-smokers, too; and that no lung cancer patient -- whether they smoked or not -- should ever be made to feel like they brought the disease upon themselves.
“Even if you smoked, you don’t deserve lung cancer,” she says. “No one deserves lung cancer.”
Lung cancer facts
- Every year, lung cancer takes more lives than breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer combined.
- This year, an estimated 25,600 Canadians will be diagnosed with lung cancer and 20,100 will die of it.
- The five-year survival rate of lung cancer is 15 per cent, compared to: 88 per cent for breast cancer; 95 per cent for prostate cancer; 63 per cent for colorectal cancer; and 54 per cent for leukemia
- Around 50 per cent are diagnosed with advanced disease when the chance for cure is low.
- Symptoms include: A cough that doesn't go away and gets worse, chest, shoulder or upper back pain that doesn't go away, coughing up blood
- Non-smoking women are more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than non-smoking men.
A Lung Cancer Canada online survey of 1,600 Canadians conducted in September found:
- Only 34 per cent know lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada.
- Only 1 per cent correctly identified radon gas as the second-leading cause of lung cancer
- 35 per cent of women agree that they feel more sympathetic toward those with breast cancer than women with lung cancer.