Lung Cancer Stigma: Fighting the Blame Game

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

If you are living with lung cancer, you know there is a stigma attached to the diagnosis. People may look at you differently than they do people with other types of cancer. Because the largest risk factor for lung cancer is smoking, everyone assumes that you did or do smoke, and some may treat you as if you did this to yourself, even if you never smoked.

Woman feeling ashamed of her lung cancer diagnosis.

How lung cancer stigma develops

The stigma of living with lung cancer shows up in different ways:

  • Smokers, even those who quit years ago, blame themselves for the disease.
  • People who never smoked are ashamed of their diagnosis.
  • People see lung cancer as a self-inflicted disease, possibly thinking, “Well, what did you expect?”
Man concerned that he's being judged by his doctor.

Lung cancer stigma punishes the victim

For some people, dealing with the stigma of lung cancer may delay their getting treatment because they are afraid their doctor will judge them. Some may accept a lower quality of care, believing that they don’t have a right to complain because they smoked despite knowing the risks. Others may avoid talking about it and therefore miss getting support from others.

Asbestos warning sign.

Recognize smoking is not the only risk factor

It is important to remind yourself and other people that while smoking is a big risk factor, there are other risk factors for lung cancer which we don’t have control over—for example, pollution, chemicals, and genetics. Allison DiBiaso, a social worker at Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology, reminds people, “You only need to have lungs to develop lung cancer.” No one should feel embarrassed or ashamed of their diagnosis.

Man explaining something to his son.

Educate to combat lung cancer stigma

Instead of shying away from discussions about your cancer because you are embarrassed, help educate your family and friends. Find out as much as you can about your type of lung cancer and share this information with your family and friends so they understand better.

Support group.

Join lung cancer support groups

Support groups, either in-person or online, give you the opportunity to talk to other people who are going through the same thing. Ask about support programs at the cancer center where you are being treated, or reach out to some of the national organizations, such as Lung Cancer Alliance, LUNGevity, and the American Lung Association.

Man talking to a doctor.

Talk to your doctors about stigma

Keep communication with your treatment team open. Talk to them about your concerns, the lack of support you may feel from family and friends, and how the disease and treatment are affecting your life. Your treatment team, including social workers and counselors, can help you cope with the emotional, physical, and spiritual challenges.

Group of close friends.

Embrace your supporters; avoid finger-pointers

Some people won’t understand. Some people will judge you. But those aren’t the people that you need around you. Look for those that are understanding and compassionate. Focus on those that offer you support and caring. When you surround yourself with supportive people, your cancer journey is a little easier.

Man on a dock watching the sunrise.

You can’t change the past

If you are a present or past smoker, remember you can’t change your past behavior, but you can change your present and future behavior. Make your treatment a priority. Take care of yourself. Be good to yourself. Forgive yourself and don’t let your guilt get in the way of receiving the best treatment you can find.

Walkathon participants.

Get involved in lung cancer advocacy

Becoming involved in an advocacy organization may help. If you have completed your treatment, consider being a mentor to those who are newly diagnosed. Reach out to find out what you can do to help. Some national lung cancer advocacy organizations include:

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.