Contributor: Nathan Pennell, MD
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
When Peter Jennings, the long-time news anchor for ABC, announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer nearly a decade ago, he admitted he had smoked most of his life. He said that he had weakened and taken up smoking again after the attacks on 9/11.
Implicit in this admission was a sense of guilt over having caused the cancer which eventually took his life. This unfair perception is something that lung cancer patients have to deal with constantly from family members, friends and society.
As a medical oncologist who treats patients with lung cancer, I see the detrimental effects of this stigma all the time. I often hear patients blame themselves, and I’ve even seen spouses blame their better halves right to their face.
On a public policy and philanthropic level, there is a general lack of sympathy and desire to support research for lung cancer treatment despite its position as the No. 1 cause of cancer-related death in the country.
This is reflected in a relatively low rate of funding compared to other cancers. Studies have shown that the majority of people believe all lung cancer is caused by smoking, and that patients have a high level of guilt and anxiety over being blamed for causing their cancer.
What most people don’t realize is that most lung cancer patients already quit smoking before they were diagnosed, a tremendous accomplishment considering how addictive nicotine can be.
Worldwide, 25 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed in people who have never smoked. Even though tobacco is the leading risk factor for developing lung cancer, most smokers start as children or teens – before they’re able to make adult decisions – and once hooked, tobacco is as addictive as heroin and as hard to quit.
Blaming these people for their cancer is unfair and just makes a horrible situation even harder to deal with. Luckily, organizations like the Lung Cancer Alliance are starting to fight this stigma through campaigns like the “No one deserves to die” ad campaign, but there’s still a long way to go.
Of course, guilt is not unique to lung cancer patients. Many patients with cancer wonder what they did wrong when they’re diagnosed: Could I have led a healthier lifestyle? Should I have seen the doctor last fall when my back started hurting? Why did I skip my mammogram last year to attend my family reunion?
The notion that cancer is a preventable illness is broadcast everywhere in the popular media. We’re told that by losing weight, eating organic foods, taking vitamins, getting all our recommended screening tests and avoiding “toxins,” we can prevent cancer before it takes hold.
The reality is that only a minority of cancer is caused by a specific cause, and our ability to prevent it is relatively modest. Yes, a healthy lifestyle and recommended cancer screenings are important, but we need to understand their limitations and not place blame when bad things happen anyway.
Even strong risk factors like tobacco smoking only cause cancer in a minority of people (although there are lots of other important reasons to quit). Most people who get cancer simply have the wrong combination of genetic predisposition, exposure and bad luck. Guilt over wondering if you brought this on yourself helps no one, and as a society we need to work to reassure all patients with cancer that this isn’t their fault.
No one deserves to get cancer, no one deserves to die of cancer and everyone deserves the very best care for their illness.
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.