Lung cancer diagnoses to decline but death rate to remain high

Experts say anti-smoking campaigns are starting to take effect as the rate of lung cancer diagnoses are expected to decline.

Experts say anti-smoking campaigns are starting to take effect as the rate of lung cancer diagnoses are expected to decline. Photo: Tamara Voninski

The rate of lung cancer diagnoses is expected to decline in Australia, with experts claiming that generations-long anti-smoking campaigns are starting to take effect.

But the mortality rate is expected to remain disproportionately high compared to other cancers.

This is partly because there is no routine test for lung cancer. The five-year survival rate is less than 14 per cent.

A lack of funding is also reported to be responsible for the poor outcomes of many patients: although 20 per cent of all cancer deaths in Australia are due to lung cancer, it attracts just 1 per cent of research funding, a 2012 Cancer Australia report found.

In contrast, breast, melanoma and leukemia shared in about 70 per cent of all cancer research money.

Todd Harper, chief executive of Cancer Council Victoria, said as the biggest risk factor for lung cancer – smoking – drops, so too will incidences of the disease.

“Australia has led the world with driving lower smoking levels and as a result, we saw lung cancer deaths peaking decades ago in men and in the case of women, we think we have reached a peak and we expect a decline in future years.”

But he added: “Lung cancer doesn’t get the focus that some other cancers get, that’s one of the challenges we face.”

Dozens of anti-smoking campaigns have been run across the country since the 1980s, highlighting the link between the addictive habit and cancer.

Anti-smoking organisation Quit revealed that the smoking rate of adults has almost halved since 1980 – that figure is now 13.3 per cent.

Quit Victoria director Sarah White said sustained efforts to reduce smoking rates had delivered real benefits.

“We know that two-thirds of long-term smokers will die – including from cancer, heart attacks and pulmonary obstructive disorders. Simple maths tells us that the reduction in smoking is saving lives,” she said.

Although smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer, exposure to asbestos, radon, hydrocarbons and metals is also responsible.

The Global Burden of Cancer 2013 report shows that the number of lung cancer deaths has increased 56 per cent since 2000. In 2010, 10,296 Australians were diagnosed with lung cancer and 8114 died.

The lack of funding for lung cancer research could be linked to the fact that the majority of sufferers are smokers, and are thus blamed for bringing the disease upon themselves.

The link between smoking and lung cancer has also created a stigma, with many patients reported to feel ashamed or to blame for their disease. This has led to some of the highest instances of depression in cancer patients, a US study found.

“Feeling stigmatised by friends or family, or even health-care workers, is a serious concern because those feelings can result in depression and lower quality of life. Lung cancer patients have some of the highest rates of depression among cancer patients,” Dr William Westmaas, director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society, reported.