Lung Cancer

Feelings of stigma, shame and guilt about having lung cancer

Many of those interviewed here felt stigmatised by other people partly because they had cancer and were expected to die, and partly because they were blamed for having cancer. Both smokers and non-smokers perceived that they were held responsible for their disease (see also 'People's ideas about the causes of lung cancer' and 'How it affects family and friends').

Some people had given up smoking, and some had never smoked, yet still felt stigmatised. They said that lung cancer can be caused by other factors, such as asbestos and pollution. Some explained that it used to be socially acceptable to smoke, and so they became addicted to cigarettes. They felt that others did not understand the problems of addiction.

One man asserted that funding for lung cancer is poor because people are blamed for their illness. He commented that because most lung cancer patients tend to die relatively quickly they are not around to talk about their illness, which leads to misunderstanding and thus 'keeps the stigma rolling'.

Some people felt that their GP did not take their cough seriously, and one man attributed this to the stigma associated with smoking, which he considered quite unfair.

One man asserted that all lung cancer patients are stigmatised because of smoking. His doctor assumed he had smoked and added the information to his medical records, even though he denied that he had ever smoked. This man also felt ashamed because he felt he should have been 'tougher' and could not support his family. He blamed himself for his illness, assuming he had done something wrong. Others also felt shame, concerned that they could no longer fulfil social obligations and work commitments.

The stigma associated with lung cancer can affect people's relationships with family, friends and neighbours. A man diagnosed with mesothelioma said that after his diagnosis his daughter found it hard to talk to him about his illness. He thought this was because cancer is seen as 'dirty', as 'disgusting', as something we don't understand.

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One woman was 'terrified' that she would not be treated by the NHS. She recalled hearing on television that smokers might be refused treatment. She was relieved to hear that she would receive treatment. 

Some people were upset and frightened by television adverts that warn people about the dangers of smoking cigarettes, though others said that they did not mind them. One woman said that there should be more publicity about those who survive lung cancer.

The stigma associated with lung cancer can seriously affect people's lives. One man did not claim financial benefits because he did not want to admit openly that he had lung cancer, and a woman kept the diagnosis to herself, rather than attend a support group, because she feared that friends would avoid her if they learnt about her condition. She had experienced stigma in the past due to epilepsy.

Last reviewed May 2016.

Last updated May 2016.

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