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Studies Indicate Progress, Highlight Challenges of Combating Lung Cancer Stigma

*September 2023*

Incredible advancements in lung cancer research and treatment have been reported during the 2023 World Conference on Lung Cancer, but the stigma surrounding lung cancer remains a deadly problem, according to Jill Feldman, a lung cancer patient and Chair of IASLC’s Patient Advocates Committee.

“There’s an undeniable blame culture in lung cancer that you just don’t see with other cancers,” she said. “Every other cancer elicits empathy and responses such as, ‘I am so sorry, what can I do to help?’ But for most of us living with lung cancer, the first question we’re asked is, ‘Did you smoke?’”

Ms. Feldman was diagnosed with stage IA lung cancer in 2009, but her experience with lung cancer stigma goes back 40 years. When she was 13, she lost two grandparents to lung cancer within weeks of their diagnoses and within weeks of each other. Six months later, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within three months at age 41.

During her presentation on Sunday, September 10, Ms. Feldman described an interaction with a friend at a baseball game not long after her father died. When this friend observed that Ms. Feldman was “never in a good mood anymore,” she reminded her friend that she had recently lost her father. Her friend responded: “Well, my mom said it was your dad’s fault because he was a smoker.”

“Needless to say, the emotional scars and impact that I experienced at 13 years old stay with me today, and I continued to experience that stigma when my mom and my aunt died [of lung cancer] when I was in my twenties,” Ms. Feldman recalled. “And since my own diagnosis, I continue to experience that stigma. I have learned how to handle it, but to watch my kids go through what I went through is heart-wrenching.”

To combat lung cancer stigma, the IASLC published the IASLC Language Guide in 2021. The guide details preferred language and phrasing for all oral and written communications, including presentations at IASLC conferences.

Ms. Feldman and a group of researchers wanted to measure the impact the guide was having, so they analyzed 519 presentations from WCLC 2022 in Vienna and found 177 presentations that referenced smoking status. Of those 177 presentations, 77 (43%) used non-stigmatizing language, while the other 100 used the stigmatizing term “smoker,” she reported. Read more.