Lung cancer kills more Americans than any other type of malignancy, claiming 162,000 lives every year. It is responsible for nearly one-third of all cancer deaths, yet, as the death toll climbs, research funding for this ferocious killer is proportionately lower than any other major cancer.
Logic would suggest that research dollars aimed at developing ways to detect and treat diseases would be targeting the most ferocious killers, but that's not what's been happening. The National Institutes of Health, the primary funding agency for medical research, spent only 5 percent of its $4.8 billion budget in lung cancer research even though the disease caused 31 percent of the cancer deaths among men and 26 percent among women.
Few illnesses engender as little sympathy as lung cancer does for those afflicted with it because most lung cancer is caused by smoking. Cancer researchers told Post-Gazette reporter Mark Roth they believe that "punishment mentality" underlies funding decisions for cancer research.
But there's plenty wrong with that thinking.
First, women who never smoked now make up the fastest-growing group of lung cancer patients. Take Ann Dudurich, 49, of Unity, who never smoked and yet was diagnosed with the most advanced stage of lung cancer 18 months ago. She has endured surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and now credits the drug Tarceva with extending her life. Or listen to the sad story of Suzanne Hill Alfano, another nonsmoker, the daughter of a Churchill cancer specialist. Ms. Alfano died at age 39, leaving two young daughters and her parents, who now devote themselves to raising funds for research.
Second, blaming the victim offers no absolution to those who contract the disease through secondhand smoke, no fault of their own.
Third, society as a whole shares in the increased medical costs associated with treating its effects.
Unfortunately, there is no early-detection test for lung cancer, and eight out of 10 cases are advanced by the time they are diagnosed. As a consequence, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer remains at about 16 percent, a figure that has been largely unchanged as survival rates for other cancers have seen significant improvements.
The solution is development of effective protocols for spotting these cancers before they inflict fatal damage as well as devising treatments that will combat it.
That takes money, far more than has been directed to lung cancer research to date. But it is money well worth spending. Just ask the daughters of Suzanne Hill Alfano.