Looking beyond smoking, lung-cancer activists want early detection and treatment

By Laura Ungar
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 24, 2011; 8:14 PM

After battling lung cancer and losing her sister to the disease, Marilyn Martens likes to hear the public-health community rail against smoking.

But she says anti-tobacco messages can't be the sole weapon against America's deadliest cancer; the focus needs to be widened to better emphasize early detection and treatment, too.

"It's really going to have to be all of these things," said Martens, 52, of Rockville, who underwent surgery for lung cancer in 2008. "I think there's a long way to go."

Martens is one of a growing number of lung cancer survivors, victims' relatives and advocacy groups calling for a greater, more comprehensive focus on the disease - similar to the multi-pronged approach to breast cancer.

Lung cancer killed 158,683 people in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five-year survival for lung cancer is 15.8 percent, up only slightly from 13 percent 35 years ago.

Doctors said there have been promising developments in treatment and early-detection research in recent years. But awareness of this progress is clouded by the overwhelming role that smoking plays in the disease, many say, an issue reemphasized in a Surgeon General's report last month. The report said that tobacco smoke contains at least 70 chemicals and compounds that cause cancer and that there is no "risk-free level of exposure" to tobacco smoke.

"We have a public-health epidemic that cannot be addressed with stop-smoking alone," said Laurie Fenton-Ambrose, president and chief executive of the Lung Cancer Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington. She said early detection and treatment are also crucial to reducing deaths.

But as they push for more attention to lung cancer, activists face a persistent stigma. "It's hard to digest that lung cancer is seen as the cancer you give yourself," said Martens, who was once a light smoker.

"No one deserves this disease," added Fenton-Ambrose.

Among other obstacles are a dearth of survivors to be voices for the cause and a lack of money. According to the alliance, federal research money for lung cancer from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense totaled $218 million in 2010, compared with $1.15 billion for breast cancer.

But survivors said they are learning lessons from breast cancer activists and others who have successfully lobbied for money and attention to their causes. And doctors pointed out that there is plenty of overlap: Research on one cancer often leads to developments in others.

Fenton-Ambrose said she's determined that lung cancer comes out of the shadows. "Our movement for lung cancer has just begun," she said.

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