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Lung cancer leads in death, but not in research funds
October 24, 2007

As a pulmonary physician and scientist who researches lung cancer, I find the inaccuracy that breast and colon cancers are the leading killers as profoundly frustrating as it is unsurprising ( "Cancer death rates fall even faster," Oct. 15). On many occasions, I have seen the look of surprise or incredulity when I share the facts with friends, patients, even colleagues in the medical field.

The fact is that the No. 1 cancer killer in this country and in the developed world is lung cancer. Nothing else even comes close. Lung cancer kills more people in the United States than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined.

It is time for our society to wake up to this truth and do something about it. The most common response I get when pointing this out is: "Yes, but isn't that due to cigarette smoking?" Well, of course it is. However, also omitted from public discourse is the fact that even in the absence of cigarette smoking, lung cancer in never-smokers would still be the third-leading cause of cancer deaths.

Let us just suspend, for the moment, the issue of whether it is ethical to blame the still smoking victims. Are we also to ignore the suffering of the thousands of nonsmokers and former smokers who will die painful, agonizing deaths as a result of lung cancer? This is precisely what our current public policies are doing.

As a scientist who studies lung cancer, I compete with my colleagues for a very small pot of money earmarked for this most lethal of cancers. For every dollar available to lung cancer researchers in this country, my colleagues who study prostate cancer can divide up $6. The disparity is even greater for breast cancer, where $9 is spent by the government for every one spent on lung cancer research.

Yet, for the 20th consecutive year, more women will die of lung cancer this year than of breast cancer.

The disparity between funding and mortality is consistent with a lukewarm commitment from the scientific community to study lung cancer as well. The number of investigators studying rare cancers such as those derived from bone marrow far exceeds the number studying lung cancer. State governments also miss the boat on this issue, as many use their tobacco settlement money to balance their budgets -- or worse -- and not to address the tobacco-related illnesses this money was intended to combat.

Lung cancer advocates have learned one thing from our colleagues in the breast cancer field. We have a ribbon, too. It is not pink, but a clear, see-through ribbon, to signify the invisible epidemic that is lung cancer.

It is long past time for a change. We need more public focus on this insidious killer. We need research on early detection, screening and better treatments. We need to use the tobacco settlement funds on tobacco control and lung cancer research, not on merit scholarships for the least needy of our high school students, and we need the few lung cancer survivors out there to band together and make their voices heard.