What Is Lung Cancer Stigma?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on July 25, 2022
5 min read

A diagnosis of cancer is hard enough. But if you have lung cancer, you’re also likely to face lung cancer stigma. Stigma refers to disapproval or discrimination that’s based on your diagnosis. The main reason for the stigma surrounding lung cancer is that the disease often – but not always – is related to a person’s smoking history. More than 80% of lung cancers happen in people who smoke or smoked in the past. But that means about 20% happen in people who’ve never smoked.

Whether you have a history of smoking or not, you're not responsible for your cancer and you don’t deserve it. But lung cancer stigma also is complicated. Even when others around you don’t blame you for the cancer, you may still feel it. One study found 95% of people with lung cancer face stigma. Stigma has even affected research funding. Lung cancer gets much less research funding than other common cancers.

Lung cancer stigma has different layers. It includes the stigma you feel coming from other people. You also may internalize the stigma. Internalized stigma may make you feel:

  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Self-blame

The stigma you feel from others and in your own mind also makes it harder to talk about your lung cancer. The stigma adds to the burden of having lung cancer. The effects of lung cancer stigma are also very real. More lung cancer stigma has been tied to:

  • Higher anxiety
  • Depression or depressive symptoms
  • Physical symptoms
  • Worse quality of life

The stigma you perceive from others may come in the form of questions or passing comments. The first question people may ask you is, “Did you smoke?” Even health providers may say things such as, “That’s what you get for smoking.” You may feel the need to tell people right away that you never smoked. These everyday experiences add up and make it harder for you to manage the cancer and its effects on your life.

Especially if you smoke or formerly smoked, you may have feelings of guilt. You may tell yourself that you did something bad or are a bad person. You may have feelings of regret or tell yourself that you did something dumb. You also may feel angry with yourself. These experiences of stigma can lead to greater distress. They also can make you doubt your ability to make good decisions about treatment or in other areas of life.

One study explored this very question. It looked at men and women with lung cancer, including people who currently, formerly, or never smoked. It did find differences in lung cancer stigma depending on a person's smoking history. People who currently smoked felt more stigma, both perceived from others and internalized, compared to people who smoked in the past or never smoked. People who smoked sometime in the past but not anymore also felt more stigma, both overall and internalized, compared to people who never smoked. All people in the study reported that they had trouble talking about their diagnosis with other people, no matter what kind of smoking history they had.

The findings suggest that people who smoke when they learn they’ve got lung cancer are most likely to have high levels of stigma. They also will need the most support to help with this. But even people who stopped smoking long ago or never smoked may find it hard to share their diagnosis with other people due to stigma.

Stigma has serious consequences when you have lung cancer. It will make life even harder at a time that’s already hard. It may cause you to turn away from family, friends, and doctors when you need them the most. Stigma can:

  • Make it harder for you to tell your doctor about symptoms that might be a sign of lung cancer. As a result, you may find out only later, when it’s harder to treat.
  • You may feel as though even your doctors blame you.
  • Lung cancer stigma may affect the treatment you receive.
  • You may blame yourself.
  • You may feel guilty, anxious, depressed, or angry.

Lung cancer stigma isn’t easy. It may come from others. It also can come from within. Some tips to help you include:

  • Get informed about lung cancer and treatment options.
  • Talk to people about your diagnosis and about the fact that lung cancer can happen to anyone.
  • Join a support group or find ways to connect with others who’ve been through it.
  • Let people know about how lung cancer stigma is affecting you.
  • Remember that no matter what, you do not deserve cancer. It’s not your fault.

It also may help to remember that:

  • Lung cancer has many causes.
  • People who never smoked still can get lung cancer.
  • Smoking is an addiction that many people pick up from a young age. Quitting is hard.
  • Efforts to get more people to quit smoking are meant to help people stay healthy. They aren’t meant to blame anyone when they get sick.
  • Everyone with cancer deserves love, care, and support.

Your friends and family can help. If you have a friend or family member with lung cancer, here are tips to support them without stigma:

  • If someone tells you they have lung cancer, don’t ask them questions about their smoking history.
  • Offer your respect, hope, and support.
  • Treat your friend or family member with lung cancer the way you did before they found out they had cancer.
  • Let them know you’re there if they want to talk.
  • If they don’t want to talk about lung cancer, let them know you’re there to talk about anything else.
  • Don’t avoid your friend or family member.

Many people with lung cancer struggle with negative thoughts and emotions related to stigma. Lung cancer itself is hard on your mental health – not just your physical health. If you are having a hard time as a result of stigma, anxiety, or depressive symptoms related to lung cancer, reach out to friends, family, counselors, or other health professionals for help.