Lung Cancer Stigma


When negative attitudes are expressed toward someone or something thought to be not acceptable to society, we call this STIGMA.

Friends, family, strangers, or even your medical team may have said or done things that made you feel like you deserved to get lung cancer. You may feel guilty if you smoked. These feelings, and the reactions you face, may be the result of lung cancer stigma.  Stigma is not new and is not unique to lung cancer.

The things others do or say that seem to blame you for getting lung cancer can make you uncomfortable. Lung cancer stigma and the feelings it causes can have serious effects on you and your care. Sometimes the effects of lung cancer stigma can lead a patient to delay or refuse treatment, avoid telling others about their diagnosis and reaching out for help.


As the dangers of smoking became known, efforts to restrict and ban it often caused a negative reaction to smokers. Since a history of smoking is so closely associated with lung cancer (over 80% of those diagnosed with lung cancer are former or current smokers), the disease has a tendency to be viewed as something a smoker did to themselves.

We now know that many factors increase the risk for lung cancer, including exposure to industrial chemicals, such as asbestos and arsenic, and exposure to environmental agents, such as radon. Changes to certain genes, also known as genetic mutations, also play a role in lung cancer development.

People with lung cancer can experience stigma in different ways.

1. Individual (Self Stigma): Smokers and former smokers may blame themselves for developing lung cancer.

I feel a lot of guilt and shame, believing that I caused my own cancer because I was a smoker.

2. Family & Friends: Loved ones may express blame due to sadness, anger and concern.

I overheard my wife say, ‘these were to be our happy years… I’m so angry at how his smoking has taken away our future!’

3. Society: Lung cancer may be perceived as a “smoker’s disease” by some individuals (in the public, media, government and healthcare profession). As a result, you may receive less compassion and support than you deserve.

When I told my neighbor that I had Lung cancer, he said, ‘What did you expect? You smoked— you got lung cancer!’

Coping with Stigma

You may respond to stigma in different ways. Reactions can include:

  • Not telling people you were diagnosed with lung cancer
  • An increase in the time you spend alone, away from your social support system
  • Increased feelings of guilt, shame, stress, anxiety, anger and depression
  • Delaying treatment, not remaining on treatment or not seeking treatment at all
  • Stress in relationships with family and friends
  • Loss of hope

Here are some helpful ways to cope with these feelings.

Coping with Stigma