Lung Cancer & Me – Debunking The Lung Cancer Myths

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November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, aimed at raising critical awareness about the disease – the leading cause of cancer death globally, with more than 2,000,000 people diagnosed worldwide each year. When diagnosed early, however, a patient is 13 times more likely to live for five years or longer. Dr. Kgothatso Motumi, Head: Market Access and Public Policy for Roche Pharmaceuticals South Africa, shares insight into this all-too-common killer.

The cost of shame 

“One of the biggest challenges patients face following early lung cancer detection is the negative stigma associated with the disease. Patients frequently feel shame when they are diagnosed with this ‘smokers’ disease’ and are less likely to seek support. These common feelings can also cause additional stress and health problems. Lung cancer patients may feel isolated or blame themselves, leaving them unlikely to speak openly about their illness. And even in cases where lifestyle was not a cause of the illness, society at large has preconceptions about lung cancer, which can make patients feel judged.

‘I felt such shame that I may have been responsible for causing myself the lung cancer diagnosis. Having to face that stigma is such a terrible thing to deal with in addition to facing a cancer diagnosis,’ says Susan L, a cancer patient.

“The truth is, as noted by the American Lung Association, ‘No one deserves cancer. Support and empathy are vital parts of the patient journey and tools that contribute towards survival. But the myths and misconceptions surrounding lung cancer have been around for many years and won’t disappear overnight. This makes it all the more important to raise awareness, debunk stigmas and give the disease a human face. Lung cancer does not need to be a death sentence.

Andy’s story 

“Andy was diagnosed with anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) positive lung cancer in August 2017, having experienced troubling symptoms. Thanks to dramatic improvements in the diagnosis of lung cancer, however, Andy has been able to go back to work and continue living a full life. Andy tells his story. 

‘I first realised that something wasn’t right when I started feeling a bit off-balance. It was as if I was drunk. I went to see my physician and was soon diagnosed with a brain tumor – with lung cancer being the cause. 

‘I was so taken aback. I am a healthy person. I eat well, exercise and I have never smoked in my life. That was the first time I learned about genetic mutations causing lung cancer and that the percentage of lung cancer patients who didn’t smoke was so high. There wasn’t anything I could do other than deal with it. I had to focus on my recovery. I had to be proactive and support my own treatment plan. 

‘The first step was about getting me stronger. But there was a tumor pressing down on my spinal column, interfering with the signals to my feet. So, the focus shifted to long-term treatment and improving my prognosis. With treatment, the tumor was reduced to the point where I was fit and healthy enough to return to work. 

‘It was important to realise that life does go on. There are more and more options out there – new generations of drugs. The aim is to make cancer a chronic illness, like diabetes – one that can be treated so that people can continue to live a full life with cancer in the background. 

‘My message of hope to others is to do what you can. Get out and about, make yourself stronger and take your doctor’s advice. You have to show cancer that you have the upper hand.’

‘Myths which are believed in, tend to become true.’ – George Orwell 

“There are many common misconceptions and myths about lung cancer and it is vital to know the facts to help spread greater awareness. Here are some of the most common lung cancer myths.

Myth: Only smokers get lung cancer

Up to 20 percent of deaths caused by lung cancer occur in people who have never smoked or used any other form of tobacco. Other causes of lung cancer include exposure to radon gas, second-hand smoke, air pollution, asbestos or diesel exhaust fumes. Non-smokers may also have gene mutations that make them more likely to develop lung cancer.

Myth: Lung cancer only happens in older adults

Although lung cancer is most diagnosed among people 55-84 years of age, it can occur at younger ages.

Myth: If you get lung cancer in older age, there is no use in treating it

Although comorbidities – which are more likely in older patients – may affect outcomes, age alone should not decide whether intervention is appropriate. The prognosis is still significantly better in older patients. 

Myth: Lung cancer is a death sentence

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. However, there has been a decline of roughly 2.2 percent in the death toll over the last 10 years. The long-term prognosis is unique to each patient and statistics don’t take all the variables into account. It cannot always be predicted exactly how an individual will be affected.

Early diagnosis, early intervention 

“The aim of Lung Cancer Awareness Month is to encourage early diagnosis. There are many important factors that influence patient outcomes. Education about the complexity of lung cancer, the variety of people affected, and the damaging effects of lung cancer stigma can help foster better patient care. It is also an opportunity to champion global access to care and – most importantly – provide potentially life-saving support for patients and their loved ones”.

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