Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and accounts for more than 25% of all cancer deaths. Each year, more people die from lung cancer than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined.
Despite this, there is a stigma around lung cancer that does not exist for other cancers. While smoking or using other tobacco products does account for 90% of lung cancers, the stigma that most people think lung cancer is only a smoker’s disease, as well as the concerns about being judged negatively for being diagnosed with lung cancer by family and friends, can impact every part of the lung cancer experience from awareness to research funding to support towards patients. This has real consequences for lung cancer survivorship.
“In reality, anyone with lungs can be diagnosed with lung cancer,” said Maryclaire Regan, community program coordinator for the Georgia Cancer Center at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10% to 20% of lung cancers, which is about 20,000 to 40,000 people, are diagnosed in people who have never smoked. And data analysis by the American Cancer Society has found 20% people who die of lung cancer in the U.S. never smoked or used tobacco.”
Many people who never smoked were exposed to secondhand smoke through their parents, spouse or workplace. There is an increasing trend of lung cancer in “never smokers” and the Georgia Cancer Center is working to address the stigma surround lung cancer and to raise awareness about the disease by educating the community.
Raising Lung Cancer Awareness
Nationally, November is designated as Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The Georgia Cancer Center is partnering with the Medical College of Georgia’s Student Oncology Interest Group and the Concerned National Black Nurses of the CSRA to sponsor the White Ribbon Fall Fest to educate the community about lung cancer, as well as to celebrate lung cancer survivors, and honor those who did not survive their lung cancer.
“The idea for the White Ribbon Fall Fest came from an impromptu white ribbon decorating event in 2021,” said Niva Matcha, a second-year medical student and president of the MCG Oncology Interest Group. “During that gathering, I met Chris Draft. He is a former professional football player for the Atlanta Falcons. He shared his story about his wife who died from lung cancer despite being a very healthy person who had never smoked.”
Draft went on to create the Chris Draft Family Foundation, as well as Team Draft, two organizations focused on improving awareness and education around lung cancer and being a caregiver for someone living with a disease such as cancer. Draft partnered with the Georgia Cancer Center in 2021 for a lung cancer awareness event and is scheduled to take part in this year’s White Ribbon Fall Fest.
Those attending this year’s White Ribbon Fall Fest on Wednesday, Nov. 2, will be able to participate in a white ribbon-build by painting a wooden ribbon. They can also enjoy delicious food, enter to win prizes, spend time relaxing with therapy dogs, enjoy music by Jordan Deshon, and play lawn games. There will also be information and resources about a person’s risk of developing lung cancer and strategies to lower that risk from a variety of vendors. A panel discussion will highlight a lung cancer survivor’s journey, offer information about lung screening that could detect lung cancer in earlier stages, and highlight state-of-the-art treatment available at Augusta University Health and the Georgia Cancer Center.
“Even for people whose lung cancer is attributed to current or past tobacco use, smoking for many is not simply a habit, but a powerful addiction that is tough to break without help,” Regan said.
“The tobacco industry knows this, which is why they maintain addicting levels of nicotine in their cancer-causing products and spend billions of dollars marketing them. The industry fuels stigma around lung cancer by deftly shifting criticism and responsibility away from their corporations and onto customers with ‘freedom of choice’ marketing.”
The White Ribbon Project
The white ribbon that participants will decorate came from a template created by a husband and wife who had their own experience with lung cancer. Pierre and Heidi Onda started the White Ribbon Project after Heidi was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018. Heidi had never smoked cigarettes. She survived her disease and was intent on raising awareness and fighting stigma on lung cancer but got a lot of pushback from folks in the medical field.
“In 2020, Pierre made a white ribbon for Heidi to hang on their door to celebrate her journey and raise awareness about lung cancer,” Regan said. “Soon other folks were asking them for ribbons and now they have white ribbon builds internationally to show people diagnosed with the disease that they are not alone. Each white ribbon template sent to sites for a build is made from the original white ribbon Pierre made for Heidi. Draft serves on the White Ribbon Project’s Board of Directors.”
According to the American Cancer Society, there are an estimated 236,740 new cases of lung cancer each year in the United States. Around 130,180 deaths occur from the disease annually. Ultimately, it does not matter what caused a person’s lung cancer. What matters is that anyone that gets the disease can get the help and treatment they need to overcome it. The Georgia Cancer Center believes everyone deserves to receive compassionate care and support through their cancer experience.
The White Ribbon Fall Fest kicks off at 2 p.m. and will run until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2 with the panel discussion and patient testimonials scheduled to take place between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m.