Eliminating the language of blame in lung cancer


“Do you smoke?” I asked the patient.

“Yes, and I got what I deserved,” he answered, clearly upset.

I ignored his reaction and continued with the exam, but in retrospect, I should have explained why doctors ask patients this question.

It was not my intention to be rude or blame the patient for his lung cancer diagnosis. Doctors ask patients if they smoke because a smoking history can change the type of treatment and it can be associated with other conditions that may interfere with treatment. It can also determine whether smoking cessation assistance should be offered to the patient. It is crucial that we as doctors know a patient’s medical history, but how we approach sensitive issues may determine if we even get the information we need. In this case, I didn’t explain why I asked the patient if he smoked. Had I taken the time to explain why I needed to know if and how long he smoked and that I was not blaming him for his lung cancer diagnosis, we may have had a more mutually respectful and beneficial relationship.

Almost all of my patients with lung cancer have been asked at one time or another – by a health care provider, friends, or acquaintances – “Do you smoke?” Whether or not they smoked, patients with lung cancer feel the weight of moral judgment being cast upon them by society.

It is common for people who smoke and who go on to develop lung cancer to be weighed down by guilt associated with their diagnosis. Patients with lung cancer face stigma-associated hurdles based on the “I did it to myself” mindset. This societal stigma is not without harm as it can result in emotional responses of guilt and self-blame. This internalized stigma may lead to psychosocial distress and decreased interactions with family, friends, and health care providers. The guilt may drive a patient to forgo lung cancer screening, minimize symptoms, delay seeking treatment, and not advocate for themselves with their physician. Some patients even decide to forgo all treatment.

What about patients who never smoked? They too feel tinged with blame. Many of these patients feel called upon to defend themselves by proclaiming loudly that they have never smoked.

Blame and shame also divides the lung cancer community, resulting in less advocacy. It may also impact research dollars for lung cancer. According to the Lung Cancer Research Foundation, “Despite being the leading cause of cancer mortality, lung cancer receives far less research funding than any other cancer.” By comparison, women with breast cancer are showered with far more resources, supportive services, fundraising events, and certainly more lobbying.

By making unintentional hurtful statements and using judgmental or denigrating language, the lung cancer community may unconsciously be playing a role in perpetuating stigmas associated with lung cancer. That kind of language can come across as blame.

The International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer has developed a language guide to help reduce stigma associated with lung cancer. The aim is to reduce and replace traditional medical language during our patient interactions, presentations, and publications with language that is more empathic and nonjudgmental.

For example, replace the term “cancer patient” with the term “the patient with cancer.” The patient is a person who happens to have been diagnosed with lung cancer, they are not “cancer.” Patients can be very sensitive to language and may misinterpret language that doctors commonly use. Language such as “the patient failed treatment” may be interpreted by patients as a personal failure. In reality, the treatment failed the patient, instead of the other way around. Instead, shift the blame from the patient to the cancer. Adopt terms like “the tumor did not respond to treatment.” Or, “the cancer progressed” instead of “the patient progressed.”

Language around smoking is particularly stigmatizing because it categorizes a person by a behavior. As health care providers, we should consider removing the term “smoker” from our interactions with patients and instead, use “patient who smokes” or ”patient with a smoking history.” Other ways health care providers can reduce stigma triggered by assessing smoking status include using supportive communication skills, providing a rationale for asking smoking related questions, offering help and tobacco cessation and other resources, and displaying empathic behavior, such as maintaining eye contact and a nonjudgmental body position orientated toward the patient.

Many of these common medical phrases were developed to enable efficient communication among health care professionals. Times have changed and patients should not be defined by an illness. They are people first. In addition to improving patient interactions in clinic, using nonjudgmental language whenever possible in presentations and publications is also extremely important, as patients are living longer and getting more involved in research and advocacy.

“Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble,” says Yehuda Berg, author and codirector of the Kabbalah Centre International in Los Angeles.

Dr. Schiller is a medical oncologist and founding member of Oncologists United for Climate and Health. She is a former board member of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer and a current board member of the Lung Cancer Research Foundation.

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