As if a cancer diagnosis isn’t enough to deal with, many people with lung cancer also face stigma.

Stigma is a set of negative and often misinformed beliefs about something or someone. These beliefs can cause those targeted to feel judged, isolated, and ashamed.

The effects of lung cancer stigma are unique. Not only does it affect mental health, but it takes a toll on physical health as well. It also contributes to underfunding of important lung cancer research.


Lung cancer is often judged in a way that other cancer diagnoses are not. The reasons for this are complicated.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), lung cancer stigma may be caused by:

  • Low survival rate. Because survival rates are low for lung cancer, it can be be perceived as a “death sentence.” This can make people uncomfortable when having conversations about the disease and doesn’t allow for hopeful, productive discussions.
  • Lack of public knowledge. The general public has fairly low understanding of lung cancer, including risk factors and how much lung cancer contibutes to overall cancer deaths. This likely contributes to stigma. When people better understand a condition, they’re more likely to feel empathy for those who have it.
  • Smoking and perceived responsibility. Misunderstandings about addiction and other risk factors that cause lung cancer feed into the unfair perception that lung cancer is a person’s fault. This affects people with lung cancer whether they have a history of smoking or not.

People with lung cancer are very likely to experience stigma. One small study showed that 95 percent of people felt stigma about their diagnosis.


Stigma leads to real harm. It can affect people with lung cancer in many ways, including:

  • Delayed diagnosis. There are often no early signs of lung cancer, so it’s typically not found until the advanced stages. People with lung cancer may worry about being blamed for their symptoms and delay seeking diagnosis or care. Being diagnosed at a later stage can limit treatment options.
  • Underestimated risk. There are reports that suggest diagnosis is also delayed for people who don’t smoke. This happened because they assumed that they weren’t at risk for lung cancer due to stigma around the condition.
  • Isolation. Having a solid support network when coping with cancer is so important, but lung cancer stigma can make it harder to tell others about the diagnosis. A survey of 117 people with lung cancer showed that 26 percent chose not to tell a casual or close friend.
  • Harms to mental health. Any kind of life changing diagnosis can affect mood and overall feelings of well-being, but feeling stigmatized makes it even harder to cope. Stigma can lead to self-blame and increase the risk of depression. People with lung cancer who perceive stigma also report lower quality of life.
  • Underfunding of research. Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Despite high rates of new diagnoses of lung cancer, important research is incredibly underfunded. This may be related to the stigma surrounding the condition.
  • Less public support. Nonprofit organizations struggle to maintain donors and volunteers, according to the ALA. Community and cultural leaders may also be more hesitant to speak up about lung cancer since it is so stigmatized.

Over the past several decades, anti-tobacco campaigns throughout the world have been successful in educating people about the risks of smoking. There’s no doubt that many lives have been saved by these efforts.

But there’s also been an unintended consequence: Lung cancer is now only seen as a “smoker’s disease” in the public’s mind, says the ALA.

People with a history of smoking are often blamed for having brought lung cancer on themselves, but it’s never OK to blame someone for a cancer diagnosis, whether they smoke or not.

According to a 2019 report, self-blame related to cancer can lead to:

  • delays in seeing a doctor
  • problems in personal relationships
  • less social support
  • expectations of rejection
  • worse mental health

It’s important to remember that there are many reasons why people may smoke. Nicotine is highly addictive. People who are addicted to nicotine get intense cravings for it.

Without nicotine, people who smoke will quickly experience withdrawal symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these include:

  • irritability
  • trouble sleeping
  • anxiety

Many people who smoke do want to quit, but it can feel nearly impossible. Data from 2015 showed that almost 70 percent of smokers in the United States wanted to quit.

Some people are able to quit, but many more are not. It’s understandable why it can be so difficult to quit, even if a person wants to. Nobody keeps smoking because they want to get lung cancer.

Many of the same effects of stigma are felt by nonsmokers who have lung cancer. They may be hesitant to see a doctor or share their diagnosis with loved ones due to fear of judgment. There are also no guidelines for doctors to screen for lung cancer in nonsmokers.

Based on data from around the world, about 15 to 20 percent of men with lung cancer are nonsmokers. Over 50 percent of women diagnosed with lung cancer are nonsmokers. The number of nonsmokers who are diagnosed with lung cancer is on the rise.

There are several lung cancer risk factors other than smoking, including:

  • secondhand smoke exposure
  • genetics
  • pollution
  • exposure to chemicals

There are things you can do to help combat lung cancer stigma. These include:

  • Getting informed and involved. Staying educated about the causes of lung cancer and new treatments and sharing this information with others can be helpful to the lung cancer community and beyond. You can also choose to volunteer with a lung cancer advocacy organization to show support.
  • Correcting misinformation. If you hear someone using stigmatizing language around lung cancer, you should consider offering facts in response and reminding them that anyone can get lung cancer. No one should ever be blamed for cancer.
  • Sharing stories. If you or a loved one have lung cancer, consider sharing your story. Showing the human side of a stigmatized disease is a powerful way to advocate and inspire empathy.

People with lung cancer often experience stigma. Stigma is rooted in a lack of knowledge and understanding.

In many people with lung cancer, stigma can lead to self-blame, mental health concerns, and lower quality of life.

It also leads to less funding for research. Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer diagnosis. Despite this, research is very underfunded.

It’s important to remember that each new diagnosis of lung cancer is another human being. Everyone deserves access to healthcare and support when living with lung cancer.