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Lung Cancer Stigma: 'Everyone Asked me if I smoked

30 Oct 2017 at 12:38 PM

When she developed shortness of breath, having lung cancer was the last thing on the mind of 35-year-old exercise physiologist Lisa Briggs.

"It was devastating. It was numbing. I was in an array of panic, but I was also fighting for my life because there was a significant amount of bleeding in my lungs and they actually said to me, if we can't stop the bleeding in your lungs, there's nothing more we can do for you," she said.

Scans showed the cancer had spread to eight different parts of her body.

While coming to terms with her shock diagnosis, she was further devastated to discover the stigma associated with the illness.

"The first question everyone asked me was 'did you smoke?'," she said.

"When I tell them I've never touched a cigarette in my life, they assume it was passive smoking," she said.

"I have to correct them again, and say actually this hasn't got anything to do with smoking. And even if it did, it shouldn't matter. For all those people who smoked when it was socially acceptable, the blame isn't helping anyone," she said.

A biopsy of her tumour showed she had a genetic mutation for the illness.

New research from the Lung Foundation Australia shows stigma like Ms Briggs' experienced is widespread, with more than one-third of people saying lung cancer patients "only have themselves to blame".

Lung Foundation CEO Heather Allen said the study found one in 10 Australians believed lung cancer patients "got what they deserved".

"It's clear we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to breaking down the stigma that lung disease carries. We must remember that lung disease can affect anyone," she said.

Ms Briggs said one Australian died every hour from lung cancer, making it the leading cause of cancer death in the country.

One in 10 Australian men, and one in three women with lung cancer have never smoked.

Health experts said the stigma has important flow on effects.

Studies have shown a link between lung cancer and delayed diagnosis and treatment, while other research suggested stigma meant lung cancer received significantly less research funding compared to other cancers.

Supportive community missing: doctors

Doctors say what lung cancer patients are missing out on is the embrace of a supportive community which exists with other kinds of cancer.

Dr Emily Stone from Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital treats patients with lung cancer, and says their experience often differs to patients with cancer like breast cancer.

"Having seen close friends and relatives with breast cancer, it's an awful experience but they are almost overwhelmed by support from everywhere including nurse support groups, strangers, online forums and you don't get that from lung cancer so much," she said.

She said her saddest diagnosis was telling a young mum with her 2-year-old sitting on her lap that she had advanced lung cancer.

"I see plenty of non-smokers with lung cancer and it's very difficult because they are often young, have young children. It's a really emotion filled setting for everybody," she said.

"It took me six months to find a single other person living with lung cancer. And it wasn't through lack of trying," she said.

"I really made an attempt to get out there and find others, because others give you hope, others give you reassurance. It was horrible to feel that lack of support."

Her real hope is that speaking out will help put an end to the stigma of lung cancer.

"We need to put an end to the stigma, the stigma underpins the decisions of every single decision that is made and whether it's intentional or not, unfortunately it exists.

"While I don't have any answers about how I got my type of cancer, we still need the sympathy and support because, that whole mood of the conversation completely changes and you spend the first couple of minutes justifying your case."

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Category: Rare Cancers in the News
Tags: lung, lung cancer, Mutation, stigma,