Lung Cancer Survey Results 2013

Lung Cancer in Canada: Overview of LCC’s First-Ever Public Opinion Poll

There is no question that the lung cancer fight is suffering from a general lack of public awareness and understanding of the disease. In order to elevate the lung cancer conversation in this country, Lung Cancer Canada conducted benchmark research on Canadians’ knowledge of — and attitudes toward — lung cancer. Our hope: to begin the critical process of clearing away misconceptions and educating the general public about this devastating disease.

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Our groundbreaking poll revealed that while lung cancer hits close to home for the majority of Canadians -- over half (51%) know a family member, friend, co-worker, or neighbor who has or had lung cancer – public knowledge about the disease and its impact is all too scarce.

Although 1 in 12 Canadians will be diagnosed with lung cancer, nearly half (47%) of those surveyed estimated that no more than 1 in 50 Canadians will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime, and an additional 32 percent had no idea of the odds. Indeed, better than 1 in 6 Canadians think they are more likely to dance on stage with Justin Bieber than get lung cancer in their lifetime.

The poll also evidenced scant awareness of just how deadly the disease is. When asked about the five-year survival rate for lung cancer – which has hovered around 15% for decades – 91% of Canadians either had no idea what it was or had an inflated view of the disease’s five-year survival rate (overestimating on average by almost 300%).

Commenting on the survey, Robert Hutton EVP of Pollara Strategic Insights, which conducted the research on behalf of Lung Cancer Canada, said: "The survey reveals a gap as wide as Hudson Bay between Canadians’ understanding of lung cancer and the brutal toll it is exacting from BC to Newfoundland. I don’t know of any other disease where there is such a big difference between public awareness and social impact. And it’s not like what you don’t know about lung cancer can’t hurt you. In fact, it’s the opposite.”

Concern, Understanding of Risk Lacking

While lung cancer will kill more than 20,000 Canadians this year, most Canadians do not take their lung cancer risk seriously.

Over half of those surveyed (54%), including two-thirds of never smokers, say that they are not concerned about getting lung cancer or have never really thought about it. Nearly nine in ten Canadians (89%) have never talked to their doctor about their risk for lung cancer and only 1% know radon gas is the second most common cause of lung cancer.

"The fact that most Canadians are unconcerned about a disease that accounts for over a quarter of all cancer deaths in this country only reinforces how much work we have to do,” said Dr. Natasha Leighl, President of Lung Cancer Canada and a medical oncologist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. "Ignoring this dreadful disease won’t make it go away.”

Women and Lung Cancer

Unfortunately, one area where Canadian women are catching up to men is in lung cancer diagnoses.

While lung cancer diagnoses for men have been trending down over the last three decades, diagnoses for women have been rising, reflecting gender-specific cigarette marketing efforts and fact that, women were, generally speaking, later to smoking than were men.

Lung cancer will kill nearly 10,000 women this year – at least 80% more than the number of women who will die from breast cancer in 2012 and more than the total number of deaths among women from breast, uterine and ovarian cancers combined.

Yet, only 11% of women correctly identified lung cancer as the top cancer killer of women (58% thought breast cancer was the top killer, followed by 13% who cited gynecological cancers).

Interestingly, among former and current female smokers surveyed, 68% said they were not aware of smoking’s health risks when they began smoking.

But smoking may not be the only issue for women. "In the U.S., a woman who has never smoked is more than twice as likely as a never-smoking man to be diagnosed with lung cancer. While we don’t have comparable data in Canada, we suspect the same is true,” Dr. Leighl said. "No one knows why non-smoking women are affected disproportionately. It’s time to find out.”

One of the factors constraining public support for women with lung cancer and their families may be a relative lack of sympathy; 39% of Canadians said that they feel greater sympathy for women with breast cancer than they do for women with lung cancer.

Smoking and Lung Cancer: Have Sympathy and Support Gone Up In Smoke?

The survey found that one of the reasons the Canadian public has largely turned a blind eye to the disease is its association with smoking.

Despite the fact that 80% of Canadians believe nicotine is addictive and 68% believe that smoking is a disease like alcoholism, when it comes to lung cancer, a "blame the victim” mentality is common.

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of those surveyed said that smokers are "very responsible” for what happens to them as a result of their smoking habit – less sympathy than is evidenced in the survey for gamblers, drug addicts, heavy drinkers or unhealthy eaters.

"While most Canadians acknowledge the addictive nature of nicotine and how hard it is to stop smoking, that awareness has not translated into large measures of understanding, sympathy or generosity towards those with a lung cancer diagnosis,” said Hailee Morrison, Executive Director of Lung Cancer Canada. "Many former smokers win a difficult battle, only to face an even greater fight with lung cancer – both in terms of the disease and public opinion.”

Dr. Leighl observed: "If we are ever going to make meaningful progress in the fight against lung cancer, we have to acknowledge and confront the stigma that accompanies a lung cancer diagnosis. Children who lose their mother or father to lung cancer do not grieve any less just because their parent was once a smoker.”

Greater Awareness, Hope, and Dollars Critical

Raising lung cancer’s low public profile is critical to progress.

Unfortunately, the disease has yet to capture the public’s attention. Just 2% of Canadians surveyed correctly identified November as Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and just 6% could name a prominent Canadian who had or has lung cancer.

This low level of awareness has translated into low levels of funding for the research so critical to more and better treatment approaches. While lung cancer accounts for more than one quarter of all cancer deaths in Canada, the disease only receives seven percent of cancer-specific research funding from the government and less than one percent of private cancer donations.

Lack of public awareness and support notwithstanding, the reality is that the level of innovation and discovery in lung cancer diagnosis and treatment is greater now than it has ever been. Important advances are being made, particularly in the area of targeted drug therapies that focus their attack on certain molecules driving cancer growth and which, in many cases, are proving to be more effective and less toxic than traditional chemotherapy. There have also been encouraging advances in the development of high-precision radiation and minimally invasive surgery, and recent evidence has emerged supporting low-dose CT scans as an effective and life-saving screening tool for high-risk populations – all of which give us hope for the future.

"When it comes to progress in the fight against lung cancer, the three most important factors are awareness, understanding, and compassion,” Dr. Leighl said. "As the only national organization in Canada focused exclusively on lung cancer education, advocacy and patient support, it’s our mission to focus the Canadian public on this devastating, relentless killer in our midst and increase Canadians’ determination and capacity to fight back.”