While women fighting breast cancer have the powerful pink ribbon on their side and men promote prostate health with fashionable facial hair, not all cancers garner the same level of public interest. Despite the horrific effects of some cancer types, few stand up to advocate for these diseases and little money is spent researching them. KOMONews.com is publishing a week-long series on some of the cancers you may not care about and all the reasons you should.
The effects of lung cancer are daunting. Nearly 230,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease in the United States this year and close to 160,000 will die from it. That's more deaths than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers combined.
Nonetheless, lung cancer stirs up little sympathy from the public because it's largely perceived as a self-caused disease. While the majority or lung cancers are related to smoking, 15 percent are not.
"The demonization of tobacco has spilled over into lung cancer," said Cecelia Izzo, a Seattle woman who was diagnosed in 2004 with lung cancer not caused by smoking. "It's automatically assumed that you brought it on yourself. Even if it had been caused by smoking, everybody makes mistakes in their life, and nobody should be called out like that."
Because only 16 percent of lung cancer patients survive, there are few patients to advocate in support of the disease. Izzo said those who live rarely celebrate with the same passion as survivors of other cancers.
"I felt like I was a pariah," Izzo said. "When you say lung cancer, people hush it along and move along."
A lack of public compassion could be influencing lung cancer survival rates. Dr. David Madtes, director of Seattle Cancer Care's Lung Cancer Early Detection & Prevention Clinic, said primary care providers are poorly educated on new treatment options for advanced stage lung cancer. Research has shown physicians often wait until lung cancer is advanced to offer palliative treatment, unaware that new therapies could extend a patient's life if recommended sooner.
Madtes said lung cancer also lacks federal research funding. In 2012, the federal government invested an average of more than $26,000 for every breast cancer death, versus just $1,400 per lung cancer death. If the government invested in new therapies targeting genetic mutations, Madtes said thousands of lives could be saved.
"A lot of lung cancers are going to be diagnosed in the next decade," he said. "To have effective therapies is so important."
Currently, Madtes said the greatest weapon we have in the fight against this deadly disease is CT screening, a test which can detect lung cancer before symptoms set in and while it's still curable. Screenings are currently available to 7 million Americans who are considered "high risk" for lung cancer, but too few know about them, Madtes said.
"The public should be encouraged to speak up if they feel they might be at risk of lung cancer," he said.