Lack of lung cancer advocacy hinders research dollars, improvements

Nov 18, 2013

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, but chances are you might not know that. Lung cancer just doesn’t get some of the same attention as other types of cancer, and that ultimately leads to more deaths.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month was October. There were runs, rides and pink-branded merchandise ranging from coffee cups to National Football League apparel, all meant to raise money and attention about the disease. Dr. Leslie Kohman, medical director of the Upstate Cancer Center in Syracuse, says you don’t see any kind of that activity in November. The reasons are many, but Kohman says one of the biggest is because lung cancer is the deadliest cancer, so fewer survivors are around to talk about it.

"Ninety percent of breast cancer patients, and almost 100 percent of prostate cancer patients are long term survivors," Kohman said. "They are around to advocate for their disease. And it’s really advocacy, because when breast cancer patients began to get together and advocate, that’s when the increased research dollars were applied to breast cancer research and the dramatic improvements were made.”

But all the deaths from breast, prostate, colorectal and ovarian cancers combined don’t add up to the deaths of lung cancer.

Kohman also attributes the disease's poor publicity to its connection with smoking.

“These people are not to be blamed for getting cancer," Kohman saoid. "It’s nobody’s fault that they get cancer. But this is a societal opinion that sometimes it’s a person’s choice to get lung cancer, which is completely absurd.”

In fact, Kohman says two-thirds of people diagnosed with lung cancer today are either former smokers or people who have never smoked. And she says while eliminating smoking and tobacco use is a key cog in the fight against lung cancer, there also needs to be more research into early detection and treatment, because so many people have already been exposed to cancer causing agents. In the end, lacking support in the cancer awareness world means fewer research dollars for treatment and early detection strategies.  

“The breast cancer survival rate is up," Kohman said. "The colon cancer survival rate is up. Most of the other types of cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, all of these cancers have far greater survival rates than they did 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Unfortunately, the same hasn’t happened with lung cancer.”

And while there have been some small steps made recently on that front, Kohman says lung cancer survival lags behind.

"As far as the cure rates go, it’s gone up only a tiny bit over the last several decades, and we absolutely need to change that.”