Is a Blame-the-Victim Mentality Choking off Funding for Lung Cancer Research?

Lung cancer holds a peculiar distinction: It's the least-researched major cancer. But it's not just one of the big cancers—it's the big one, resulting in more deaths annually, in the U.S. and globally, than any other cancer. Yet it attracts a disproportionately small percentage of research dollars in the U.S. compared with the amount of illness it causes.

According to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America (LCFA), the disease is responsible for 160,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, about equal to the number of deaths attributed to the next four cancersbreast, prostate, colon and pancreaticcombined.

But in 2012, federal funding for lung cancer was less than one-fourth of that for breast cancer, even though lung cancer kills four times as many Americans. Lung cancer funding was close to two-thirds of the funding levels for prostate and colon cancer, again despite being responsible for several times as many deaths as either of those diseases.

So why does the most deadly cancer get the least funding? Perhaps because the majority of lung cancer occurs in current and former cigarette smokers, they're blamed for their disease, and deemed somehow less deserving of public and private funding.

As for the actual smoking stats, about 15 percent of new cases are in people who never smoked20 percent in women. Current smokers make up 35 percent and former smokers 50 percent of new cases. Many of these former smokers quit decades before their diagnosis.

Some funders, of course, are taking on this disease. Here are a few:

  • The Lung Cancer Research Foundation recently announced $2.1 million in grants for 2015, comprising 28 individual grants at 22 institutions. Since 2007, LCRF has funded 111 grants, over $5 million total, for lung cancer research in the U.S. and Canada.
  • The Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation describes itself as one of the largest patient-centered philanthropies devoted exclusively to lung cancer. It has raised $25 million since its establishment not quite 10 years ago, and awards grants for research, including funding for young investigators.
  • The LFCA, mentioned above, has funded nearly $600,000 in grants since its establishment in 2007, in partnership with the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer.

This is not an exhaustive list, but given the toll this disease takes, it's easy to feel like there's something very wrong with the public's response to both philanthropic and government support for lung cancer research. True, people shouldn't smoke, but any blame or stigma attached to lung cancer needs to disappear, as oncologists and funders point out, before research can advance commensurate with other cancer research. 

Low funding levels are a vicious cycle that results in fewer scientists getting on the case. After all, researchers have to make a living, and they will follow the funding.

And, as we've noted recently, it makes good scientific sense to study all cancers. Researchers develop fundamental understanding of cancer's biology and treatment by studying different varieties of the disease. Medical research is not a zero-sum game; study of lung cancer could very well yield important knowledge about genetics, immunology and biology that can be applied not just to for the benefit of the millions of patients and families affected by lung cancer, but for the millions more suffering from all forms of cancer.

Related: This Funder is Bringing Lessons Learned in Europe to Bear on KentuckyLung Cancer