The American Cancer Society has published their 2011 estimates of new cancers cases and deaths.
Prostate and breast cancers top the list with the highest number of new cases for men and women, respectively. Fortunately, a routine physical often leads to early detection, and early detection leads to a very high survival rate. For example, the 5-year survival rate for stage IIa breast cancer is 81%. The survival rate for local prostate cancer (similar to stage I and II) is 100%.
Lung cancer tops the list with the highest number of deaths for both men and women. In fact, it kills nearly the same amount of people as colon, breast, pancreatic, and prostate cancers combined. In my opinion, the problem is two-fold. First, there is no approved process for early detection of lung cancer (i.e. colonoscopy, mammogram, self-exam). You and your doctor certainly can’t palpate your lungs to feel for lumps and changes! As such, diagnosis is often made after the patient is symptomatic (like coughing up blood) in late stages. The 5-year survival rates for stages IIIa, IIIb, and IV are 14%, 5%, and 1%, respectively.
The other problem is effective treatment. Even when lung cancer is caught early, the prognosis isn’t stellar. Compared with the breast cancer statistic above (81%), the stage IIa non-small cell lung cancer survival rate is only 30%.
So let’s look at the story of breast cancer. First, it’s the most successfully marketed disease of all time. From inception through 2010, Susan G. Komen for the Cure raised $1.5 billion. A whopping $540 million went to research alone. And this is only one (albeit the largest) of several dedicated organizations. In addition, the US government invested more than $631 million in breast cancer research in 2010 alone. Prostate cancer was the next highest funded ($300 million) and lung cancer the third ($282 million).
My goal isn’t to fight some sort of ‘cancer injustice.’ After all, discoveries made in one area of research sometimes benefit others. But I do think lung cancer needs a better PR firm. It is under-funded and under-researched.
Perhaps that’s due to the smoking stigma. Most people assume that you get lung cancer because you smoke. The truth is that smoking can cause several types of cancer in the body’s organs and makes you more susceptible to every type cancer. But if someone told you they had pancreatic cancer, you wouldn’t ask them if they were a smoker, would you?
And finally, lungs just aren’t sexy. Breasts, on the other hand, have always been popular. It should be no surprise that they get plenty of attention in their time of need! Maybe someday we’ll see professional athletes wearing gear to support lung cancer.
Oh, one more thing for this rant: Can we get a new color? Lung cancer is currently represented with a clear or white or pearl-colored ribbon. I have a proposal, though. The new ribbon for lung cancer should be the jolly roger flag: black with skulls and crossbones. Now THAT would increase awareness!