Despite being the leading cause of cancer death globally, lung cancer doesn’t receive a commensurate share of research and funding. In fact, we know that lung cancer is responsible for 32% of cancer deaths, and yet only receives 10% of cancer research funding. The reasons for this discrepancy are varied and complex, but there is undoubtedly a connection between disproportional funding and stigmas that persist about the disease. Many people blame victims of lung cancer, believing that patients brought the disease upon themselves due to its connection with smoking. In addition, a widespread perception endures that the disease is untreatable. These views are inaccurate and based on unfair assumptions.
Global awareness is needed to help change these ideas. The fact is anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. Awareness is the first step in changing the stigma.
Building on that, we need to recognize some of the most exciting progress and innovation has occurred in the field of lung cancer detection and treatment over the last decade. As we plan for next year’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month, let’s commit—from the public to the medical community—to dedicating proportional resources to lung cancer research and to sending a global message that whether or not someone has smoked should not change their need for compassion and the best possible care available. This way we can save more lives and bring hope to millions across the world.
Research and funding dollars for lung cancer lag behind other, less deadly cancers, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, and leukemia. Data show that lung cancer results in three times as many deaths as the next two deadliest cancers, colorectal and breast, and yet doesn’t receive proportional funding. The American Cancer Society estimates that by the end of 2017, 222,500 new lung cancer cases will be diagnosed, equaling about 25% of all cancer diagnoses.
While lung cancer research has increased, it is doing so at an insufficient rate. According to a 2016 study from the Global Lung Cancer Coalition (GLCC), there has been a relatively small increase in the percentage of global cancer research focused on lung cancer—jumping only from 4.4% to 5.6% between 2004 and 2013. By no means should we reduce critical funding for other cancers, but we do need to ensure that lung cancer is receiving an appropriate amount of resources given its devastating impact.
Additional research for lung cancer is not just necessary because of the lives it impacts, but it is also justified given the tremendous recent progress we’ve seen in treatment, detection and prevention. One area of particular success has been the emergence of precision medicine. Scientists are now examining tumor cells from patients to identify unique abnormalities that create tumors and allow them to grow. This understanding has enabled doctors to create custom treatments that target specific abnormalities, many of which exist in multiple patients with lung cancer.
Another area of growth has been screening, with individual countries establishing guidelines for physicians on when they should recommend screening for high-risk patients. While there is still a ways to go in terms of implementation, screening has allowed doctors to diagnose the disease earlier and thus provide more effective treatment. Screening technology has also improved significantly, as we’re seeing a shift from traditional X-rays to low-dose CT scans, which are more successful at diagnosing lung cancer in early stages.
Lastly, research is making headway in the area of prevention, shining a light on the many causes of the disease so that individuals can reduce their risk. Because of all this progress, we’re seeing notable increases in survival rates.
These advances also dispel some of the most common myths about the disease. We’ve learned through research, for instance, that while smoking is the biggest driver of lung cancer, there are many other causes, including radon exposure, pollution, and genetic history. We’re also seeing that it is possible to effectively treat the disease, even for patients in advanced stages.
As we chart the course forward, we need to acknowledge and expand upon the tremendous success of the medical and scientific communities. We must ensure that lung cancer receives the support and funding it deserves, because more research leads to more survivors—and more hope for millions of people around the world.
Fred R. Hirsch is the CEO of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC). Kathy Weber is a nurse practitioner, lung cancer survivor, and IASLC Foundation board member.