A new report from Lung Foundation Australia shows that Australians’ negative attitudes to and stereotypes about lung cancer patients is impacting diagnosis and access to treatment.
Lung cancer has a 15% five-year survival rate 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.
“Unlike other cancers, lung cancer patients face constant questioning around their earlier life choices that may or may not have contributed to the disease,” says Lung Foundation CEO Heather Allan, a cancer survivor who says she received nothing but respect when faced with breast cancer – respect not enjoyed by lung cancer patients.
“Lung cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither should we,” she says.
The negative attitudes and stereotypes experienced by lung cancer patients, largely due to its association with smoking, have been compared to those surrounding HIV/AIDS, mental illness and obesity.
“Experiencing depression, delays in seeking help for symptoms, stopping treatment early and receiving limited social support are just some of the impacts felt by lung cancer patients. We need to achieve equity, raising the standard in lung cancer care to give patients the best chance of survival,” Allan says.
The scale of negative sentiment is even greater in Australia. A global study found that out of 15 nations surveyed, Australians had the least sympathy for people diagnosed with lung cancer because of its association with tobacco smoking.
These national attitudes translate to low policy support, with less than five cents of every cancer research dollar in Australia going to lung cancer, says the Foundation.
However the blanket association of lung cancer with smoking is inaccurate.
Lung Foundation Australia’s Lung Cancer Consultative Group Chair Professor Kwun Fong says that one in three women diagnosed with lung cancer has never smoked and occupational exposure contributes to 29% of lung cancer in men.
”Smoking was also responsible for other cancers and heart disease but lung cancer patients were unfairly singled out for blame,” Prof Fong says.
“Nowadays, most people diagnosed with lung cancer have quit smoking, often many years before their diagnosis.
“For patients with lung cancer, they not only face their diagnosis but fear attitudes towards their diagnosis, making them feel less worthy of help and support.”
The study was released as the Australian Lung Cancer Conference opens in Melbourne.