Study Shows a Changing Attitude Regarding Lung Cancer Bias

Lung cancer

A stigma remains around lung cancer and many people still regard the disease as something of a self-inflicted ailment. But that stigma is waning, new research conducted by the Inova Schar Cancer Institute and Genentech shows.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths across the globe, with about 160,000 cases annually in the United States. In 2012, the cancer institute first conducted a study measuring societal attitudes toward lung cancer that showed a hidden negative bias existed towards lung cancer. The study, the results of which were published in 2015, showed that attitudes toward lung cancer were far more judgmental than breast cancer. However, over the years, the stigma against lung cancer has lessened. Dr. Joan Schiller, a professor in the Department of Medicine at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute who led the study, told BioSpace that updated findings from the study, called The Lung Cancer Project, recent developments in disease treatment, as well as changing attitudes regarding the cause of the disease have lessened the negative stereotypes. When the study was first conduced seven years ago, Schiller said many lung cancer patients felt shame due to the fact that years of smoking contributed to the disease. Also, other test participants who did not have the disease saw smoking as a top contributor to lung cancer and placed blame on the individual for the disease – something which is not seen in other diseases. Schiller said when a patient is diagnosed with liver cancer, they’re not shamed by the public over alcohol consumption, nor are those facing cardiovascular issues shamed over the number of Big Macs they may have eaten.

That stigma of shame, Schiller noted, can deter some patients from seeking treatment, particularly due to perceptions over life expectancy.

To measure the societal attitudes, the Lung Cancer Project uses a timed response for answers regarding images associated with various diseases. Similar tests are performed to gauge reactions to numerous social issues, including reactions to minority groups. When the test was first conducted in 2012, Schiller said the quickness of response time indicated a higher view of shame associated with lung cancer. However, when the study was recently re-conducted, the changes showed a shift toward hopefulness.

In a comparison, when the test was conducted in 2012, 75% of participants had a negative bias regarding lung cancer. That has decreased to 66%, according to the data.

“While the majority of views for lung cancer are on the side of shameful, there was a definite decrease from negativity and despair” from 2012 to 2019, Schiller said.

As the study points, out, a negative bias toward lung cancer continues to exist, but the “significant decrease in the number of people who associate lung cancer with shame, stigma, and hopelessness is encouraging.” Schiller said that is a startling change because past research has shown implicit attitudes tend to remain stable over time.

What seems to be driving the change to one of hope is a significant improvement in treatments for lung cancer, such as drugs developed by Genentech and other pharma companies. Over the past several years, multiple drugs have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of lung cancers. Genentech, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and more have all won approvals for various lung cancer drugs.

“With all the new drugs that have come out, we are making significant steps and we’re seeing people live a lot longer,” Schiller said.

In addition to the improvements in treatment options for lung cancer, changing attitudes toward the disease have also boosted hope. Schiller said the number of lung cancer advocacy groups has grown over the years who have helped shed some sunshine on the disease statistics and treatments. But, Schiller said it’s important for there to be even more advocacy. Despite being the number one disease for cancer-related death, Schiller said public funding into lung cancer research pales against other cancers, such as breast cancer.

“Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. You don’t have to be a smoker. We need better screening and more survivors willing to talk about it,” she said.

Young working professionals smiling.

Back to news