A cancer diagnosis is difficult news to hear, but the news that a patient has lung cancer can be especially daunting. Stark statistics illustrate that more people die of lung cancers than any other cancer, with the disease killing three times more men than prostate cancer does each year, and more women than breast and ovarian cancers combined.
All cancer patients commonly suffer from a variety of psychosocial factors or deficits such as fear, anxiety, and financial stress; however, patients with lung cancer may suffer particularly acute loss of hope and stigmatization. High levels of psychosocial stress can cause mental and/or physical health problems that can lead to a poorer quality of life for patients with lung cancer than for a patient managing a different disease at the same stage.
One factor often responsible for poorer outcomes for patients with lung cancer is that patients may experience strong feelings of stigmatization, as cigarette smoking is the cause of a majority of lung cancer cases. Of the approximately 157,000 people who die of lung cancer each year, 90% of the deaths among men and 80% of deaths among women are caused by smoking.1 Public awareness of the danger of smoking often leads to the misguided idea that patients with lung cancer brought their cancer on themselves.
As evidence of this, there are no standard rehabilitation protocols for patients who have had a lung removed, a deficit in care that one leading lung cancer expert (Mark D. Kris, MD, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, personal communication, March 2015) surmises is due to discrimination against lung cancer patients.2 Psychosocial stresses, such as discrimination, may have a significant negative impact on the quality of life and daily living for patients, families, and caregivers.3 Patients with lung cancer may have smoked as a way to cope with stress in the past, so helping them find other ways to manage stress is important given that they will no longer have the option to continue smoking. Patients may be directed to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) toll-free Quitline, which can connect callers to their state’s services to get help quitting smoking (1-800-QUIT-NOW).
Most lung cancers are not diagnosed until the cancer has progressed to stage 4, so it is generally more helpful for patients to focus on being hopeful rather than on the details of the typical prognosis and statistics on outcomes and mortality that may be found on the Internet. Instead of looking only at long-term prospects or a return to full health as yardsticks for measuring treatment success, remind the patient to look for ways to live life as fully as possible.