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Director’s Letter

Confronting Lung Cancer’s Stigma

December 8, 2010

Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.

I’m no fan of smoking. In fact, I wish we could reduce the smoking rate in this country to zero. Even if this wish were to come true, between 15,000 and 25,000 Americans would still die of lung cancer each year.

Tobacco use is a key issue in lung cancer. The link between smoking and lung cancer is undeniable, with decades of research indicating that smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer. And as a country, we have made considerable progress in reducing smoking rates.

The high level of public awareness of the link between smoking and lung cancer has been an important factor in reducing smoking prevalence. However, it may have led to an unfortunate and counterproductive “stigma” associated with the disease: that those with the disease have brought it on themselves, and therefore this disease is not as deserving of empathy, sympathy and support as others.

This stigma touches everyone with lung cancer – smokers, former smokers, and never smokers alike – and everyone around them. While there’s no hard evidence that this stigma has caused research funding to lag behind other cancers, one has to wonder if this stigma has mistakenly led the public to believe that funding for lung cancer research is not as critical as funding for other diseases.

This stigma has also hindered the efforts of nonprofit organizations to raise awareness and funding for this disease, which kills more Americans each year than all of the other major cancer types combined.

At Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, we recognize that no matter a person’s smoking history, all lung cancer patients deserve the best that modern science and medicine can offer.

While we continue to support efforts to reduce smoking and help patients quit, we know that this is only one part of the equation. Our lung cancer researchers are working tirelessly to achieve a better understanding of how the disease progresses, to identify new methods for preventing and detecting lung cancer at earlier stages, and to investigate new approaches to treat lung cancer by targeting treatments to the unique genetic makeup of the individual’s cancer.

As this issue hits the press during Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we want to express our support for all lung cancer patients and our dedication to improving the lives of lung cancer patients and their families.

-Jennifer Pietenpol