Lifting the Smoke over the Stigma of Lung Cancer

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, but you’d never know it.

Consumers aren’t bombarded by products in blue, the color designated by some to raise the profile of the disease. Not a single building in the city’s majestic skyline is illuminated in blue. No NFL players or coaches are wearing blue-ribboned apparel, despite donning pink just a month earlier for breast cancer.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” said Meghan O’Brien, 31, a nonsmoker diagnosed with stage 4 of the disease last year, in a Chicago Tribuine story published Nov. 26.

The lack of buzz is especially perplexing because lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, claiming more lives than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers combined. The five-year survival rate is just 16 percent — a statistic that has barely budged since 1975, according to the American Cancer Society.

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Ravi Salgia, MD, PhD

However, nowhere is the disparity felt more acutely than in funding research. The National Cancer Institute estimates that $17,835 is spent per breast cancer death versus $1,378 for lung cancer, even though lung cancer accounts for almost 23,000 deaths annually among nonsmokers.

“If we don’t start paying attention and changing attitudes, we will have a losing battle ahead of us,” said Dr. Ravi Salgia, O’Brien’s oncologist at University of Chicago Medicine.

In O’Brien’s case, doctors pinpointed a rare genetic mutation, called ALK, created when two normal genes fuse together to form a new, cancer-causing one.

The University of Chicago is one of the nation’s major treatment centers because of a clinical trial for crizotinib, part of a new arsenal of drugs designed to help patients by blocking ALK. This pharmaceutical “Hail Mary” helped contain O’Brien’s cancer for a while, but now it has come roaring back, invading her lungs and brain. Two months ago, a scan revealed a liver studded with tumors.

Read more about O’Brien and the University of Chicago Medicine’s lung cancer program in in this story from the Chicago Tribune.

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