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Lung cancer: Overlooked, underfunded

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http://www.newsday.com/news/health/ny-h ... alth-print


Lung cancer: Overlooked, underfunded


January 9, 2007

When researchers announced a few weeks ago that rates for breast cancer had dropped a staggering 7 percent between 2002 and 2003, the news was hailed by an advocacy movement that has fought tirelessly in the past few decades to raise awareness and money for a cure.

The decline in large part was attributed to women drastically abandoning hormone replacement therapy after a myriad of studies suggested a link between estrogen and breast cancer.

If only the strides were as promising with lung cancer and some of the other cancers that have failed to get as much attention, media ink and research dollars through the years.

I believe in truth in advertising, so I must disclose I am one of the hundreds of thousands of women in America battling lung cancer. Let's face it: Though it's the biggest cancer killer among men and women, lung cancer remains the Ugly Betty of cancers, the one few want to acknowledge, the one that has a barely recognizable ribbon. It's a sickly-looking, unattractive clear ribbon - because lung cancer has often been perceived by advocates as the "invisible" disease - as opposed to the ubiquitous bright pink ribbon that has become the emblem of the breast cancer movement. This is not to say that breast cancer doesn't deserve the attention it has received. It does, since one in eight women will get it in their lifetimes.

But lung cancer is the cancer that is still whispered in elevators or crowded rooms. It is the cancer that immediately elicits the question, "How long did you smoke?" In the end, it doesn't really matter.

Blame is a wasted effort, and we're all in this together, aren't we? As a society, we should be vigorously seeking all potential cures for all cancers. I hope so.

But in my travels in cancerland during the past few years, I've disappointingly found that a caste system of cancers does exist, at least when it comes to funding and public awareness.

The American Cancer Society, the largest nongovernment provider of cancer research money, funds $96 million in breast cancer research grants, compared to the $35 million being used for lung cancer research. According to Lisa Daglian, a spokeswoman for the society, the grants are researcher-driven, and each award is granted based on peer review.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer among women; about 213,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2006, and 40,000 of those women died. There were about 82,000 new lung cancer cases among women diagnosed in 2006, and 72,000 women died.

Still, Daglian says there is a societal bias against those with lung cancer. "There's an unfortunate bias that people with lung cancer have brought this upon themselves because of tobacco use."

Even in the government realm, lung cancer and others are grossly underfunded, according to the Washington-based Lung Cancer Alliance.

"These statistics did not occur overnight. They have existed for decades, and the survival rate for lung cancer has barely improved," said Laurie Fenton, president of the organization. According to a compilation of figures from the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Defense, total research spending dollars per cancer death in 2005 were $23,474 for breast cancer, $14,369 for prostate cancer, $5,216 for colon cancer, and $1,829 for lung cancer.

I never really knew the Department of Defense funded cancer research among all of its various other projects, including hunts to find weapons of mass destruction. To me, lung cancer would be such a weapon. When I called an official at the DOD about its cancer research programs, I discovered that DOD money is congressionally directed. Breast cancer research received $127 million in fiscal year 2006; prostate cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men, received $80 million in that same time period. It has a ribbon as well: blue. Who knew?

As for lung cancer, well, the Department of Defense allocates no money for research. Zero. I think the ribbon for lung cancer should be bright orange, like the high-level "orange alert" in the system to let U.S. citizens know when we might be at risk for a terrorist attack. If Donald Rumsfeld were still around, I might suggest this to him - simply because lung cancer and its grim survival statistics terrify me more than any terrorist threat.

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