‘Stigma Kills’: Kathy Griffin’s Diagnosis Brings Lung Cancer Needs to the Forefront, Regardless of Patient Smoking History

August 9, 2021
Cure
By Brielle Benyon

Lung cancer can happen to anyone, regardless of their smoking history. Two advocates discussed the need to end the stigma around the disease.

Last week, actress and comedian Kathy Griffin announced that she received a diagnosis of lung cancer, despite having never smoked. Although the American Cancer Society reported that about 16% of lung cancers in women were diagnosed in people who never smoked, the stigma around the disease is still prevalent in our society.

“Many people are shocked when they learn someone who never smoked was diagnosed with lung cancer. They shouldn’t be. All cancer is caused by mutations in genes, and there are many different risk factors,” Janet Freeman-Daily, a lung cancer advocate, survivor and co-founder of Twitter’s #LCSM, said in an interview with CURE®.

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer can be caused by inherited genetic mutations, as well as exposure to the following:

  • Radon gas
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Hazardous agents in the workplace, such as uranium, asbestos and diesel exhaust
  • Air pollution

“Lung cancer kills more people than any other cancer, anyone with lungs can get it, and nobody deserves it,” Freeman-Daily said.

Lung cancer occurs in females more frequently than males and is the leading cause of cancer-related death in women in the United States – and the number of diagnoses in people who have no risk factors continues to grow. However, advocates say that negative perceptions have led to a lack of research funding.

“A long-held stigma attached to the disease has resulted in a lack of attention, support and research funding that would help us answer the question as to why someone like Kathy, who never smoked, has lung cancer,” said Laurie Fenton Ambrose, president and CEO of the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, in an interview with CURE®.

Ambrose noted that the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer is working on advocacy to increase federal research funding that will focus on the disparate impact of lung cancer on women. The organization is also running its own studies looking at why young people with seemingly no risk factors continue to be diagnosed, as well as eliminating stigma.

At age 60, Griffin just falls shy of the average age of a lung cancer diagnosis, which the American Cancer Society reports to be 65. But there is an alarming number of young adults between the ages of 20 to 49 being diagnosed, too, with about 28% of women and 19% of men diagnosed in this age group having never smoked.

Regardless of smoking history, Ambrose emphasized that nobody should be blamed for their diagnosis.

“Kathy Griffin’s diagnosis reminds us again that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. Whether you are a current, former, or never smoker, no one deserves lung cancer,” she said.

Freeman-Daily shared the same sentiment.

“Stigma can also kill. Instead of looking for something or someone to blame, let’s aim to ensure everyone can access specialists, biomarker testing, approved therapies and clinical trials,” she said. “Let’s fund more research so that ALL lung cancers will someday have effective therapies. Isn’t that what you’d want for a loved one who got sick?”

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