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The lowdown on lung cancer stigma

LauraMarlow17 February 2015

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK with over 40,000 people diagnosed each year.  Smoking accounts for around 86% of lung cancer cases and studies have shown that most people are now well aware of the link between smoking and lung cancer risk.

While public health campaigns have successfully portrayed smoking as an undesirable behaviour, stigmatising lung cancer seems to have been a by-product of this success. Studies suggest that many lung cancer patients feel stigmatised and the link with smoking is often offered as an explanation for this.  In a study published online last week, we show that lung cancer patients’ perceptions of stigma are reflected in the general population, with greater stigma attributed to lung cancer than to other cancer types.

In our study, 1205 men and women answered questions about lung, skin, breast, bowel or cervical cancer.  The questions used were taken from the recently developed Cancer Stigma Scale  which assesses six dimensions of cancer-related stigma: Awkwardness, Severity, Avoidance, Policy Opposition, Personal Responsibility and Financial Discrimination.

Participants  who answered questions about lung cancer generally gave higher ratings on the stigma scale than those who were asked about other cancers.  They rated lung cancer patients as more responsible for their illness and reported being more likely to avoid people with lung cancer.  They said they would feel more awkward around people with lung cancer, and were more tolerant of financial discrimination and lower levels of support for patients with the disease.  They also considered lung cancer to have more severe consequences than other cancers, which is consistent with the poor survival rates among lung cancer patients.

There were some exceptions, for example personal responsibility was judged to be similar for skin and lung cancer patients, probably because of the role of sun exposure in skin cancer risk.  Perceived awkwardness scores were similar for bowel and lung cancer patients.

Negative perceptions of lung cancer can have a negative impact on patient experience and funding contributions.  They may also have an impact on preventive behaviours among smokers, such as seeking medical help for cancer symptoms or participation in lung screening if this is introduced.  We need to find ways of limiting cancer stigma for patients, health professionals and the community, while still promoting public health messages about lifestyle based cancer prevention – perhaps a difficult balance to achieve.

Article reference: Marlow LAV, Waller J, Wardle J. Does Lung cancer attract greater stigma than other cancer types? Lung Cancer, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lungcan.2015.01.024