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Lung cancer is the tragic--and neglected--epidemic of our


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http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2005 ... 005/144124

Lung cancer is the tragic--and neglected--epidemic of our time

Date published: 11/9/2005

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.--As we observe Lung Cancer Awareness Month in November, the events of this year become particularly poignant. The death of ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, a former smoker, was one such event.

Another was the announce- ment by Dana Reeve, Christopher Reeve's widow, that she, too, has lung cancer, even though she has never smoked.

The stories of these two individuals have personalized lung cancer in much the same way Rock Hudson's death personalized the AIDS epidemic. And indeed lung cancer also qualifies as an epidemic. It is this nation's largest killer among all cancers, causing more American deaths each year than liver, colon, prostate and breast cancers combined.

About 173,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year; about 164,000 are expected to die from the disease during the same time.

Yet federal funding for lung cancer research has consistently lagged behind other cancers. The National Cancer Institute estimates that it will spend about half as much on lung cancer research this year as it does on breast cancer research, even though lung cancer is expected to kill four times as many people.

Probably as a result of chronic underfunding, five-year survival rates have not improved for lung cancer over the past three decades, whereas they have improved significantly for most other cancers.

Today, as in the 1970s, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer hovers at around 15 percent, with 60 percent dying in the first year after diagnosis. Compare this to the prostate cancer five-year survival rate that has soared from 67 percent to 99 percent.

Why has lung cancer been neglected? One reason is stigmatization. Lung cancer patients are frequently blamed for having smoked. It's true that most lung cancer patients have smoked at one time or another, but it's also true that half of the people now being diagnosed with lung cancer are either nonsmokers or have quit smoking.

About 15 percent have never smoked.

Dana Reeve's announcement also brings to mind another disturbing trend: the number of non-smoking younger women who have been diagnosed with lung cancer. An estimated one in five women lung cancer patients has never smoked.

And, while the number of men diagnosed with lung cancer has been going down, the number of women has been rising over recent decades. The American Cancer Society estimates that 73,020 women will die this year from lung cancer, about 14,000 of whom are women who never smoked.

Another possible reason for the neglect of lung cancer is the low survival rate. Tragically, this means there are few survivors to act as advocates and long-term testing is practically impossible. This makes it all the more urgent that others in the community become advocates.

As we have seen with other illnesses, it is possible for compassion to tip the balance.

While companies and research organizations have invested hundreds of millions in lung cancer research, and progress is being made, there is a need for a nationwide effort on a broad front if we are to prolong the lives of lung cancer sufferers.

The Lung Cancer Alliance, a national nonprofit advocacy group, is executing an aggressive campaign to bring pressure to bear on Congress to step up funding for lung cancer research.

Be sure to urge your congressional representatives to fund lung cancer research. It's time we went on the offensive with this dangerous killer.

DR. MARK A. SOCINSKI is an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Date published: 11/9/2005

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