Study Finds Many Lung Cancer Patients Do Not Know What Type They Have


Language barriers can present a major obstacle to patient involvement in cancer care, although clinicians recommended several potential strategies to help patients who speak different languages.

The increasing complexity of cancer treatments can create barriers to understanding diagnoses and treatments, with a new study finding that more than 10% of patients with lung cancer do not know what type they have.

According to survey findings from the Global Lung Cancer Coalition (GLCC), which conducted the survey across 17 countries, nearly 1 in 5 patients surveyed did not feel involved in decisions about their treatment and care. A similar proportion felt that they had never or only sometimes been treated with dignity and respect by their treatment team. The findings illustrate that many patients do not feel empowered in their treatment, according to the study authors.

“I was shocked that some people didn’t know what type of lung cancer they had because, if they didn’t have that information, how could they understand their treatment options for making decisions about their care?” said Vanessa Beattie, of the GLCC, in the press release. “Receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer is devastating and it’s crucial that patients receive good quality information from the start, so they are empowered to make informed decisions about their treatment.”

Of 907 patients with lung cancer who responded to the survey carried out in January 2020, 63% were from Europe. Of those, 11% did not know which type of lung cancer they had, compared to 13% globally. Furthermore, 19% of European respondents did not feel involved in decisions about their treatment and care, and 11% felt they had “never” or “only sometimes” been treated with dignity and care by their treatment team.

Although cancer services may vary globally, Beattie said clinicians need to continue driving improvements in lung cancer care and engaging with patients to address their individual needs.

“There is still a stigma attached to lung cancer because of its links with smoking, but every patient should be treated with dignity and respect at all times and have a positive experience of care whenever they are treated, including opportunities to talk about their concerns,” Beattie said in the press release.

A second study highlighted the barriers that language differences and increasing treatment complexity can present for patients. An inability to communicate with their medical team may jeopardize not only their care but also recent progress in patient empowerment, according to the researchers.

Between November 2017 and December 2020, the study found that 242 referrals for interpreters speaking a total of 24 languages were arranged at a major hospital in Ireland. The majority were for patients from Central and Eastern Europe and the number of interpreter requests ranged from 0 to 18 per patient. This significant number of referrals illustrates the fact that 1 in 6 people living in Ireland were born abroad and 75% of these speak their primary language at home, according to the study.

Lead investigator Tianna Martin, MD, pointed out how easily misunderstandings can occur in these situations and stressed the importance of asking patients their preferred language. Effective communication is especially important given recent treatment developments, Beattie said, which allow patients to receive treatments at home rather than in a hospital or clinic environment.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see a patient who appeared to understand their diagnosis and treatment become deeply distressed weeks or months later when they finally realize they have cancer,” Martin said in the press release.

She recommended flagging the records of patients with language needs so that clinicians can ensure appropriate translation services are in place. She also proposed that, given the growing complexity of treatments, specialized training should be given to interpreters at cancer clinics.

“It is important that interpreters can accurately explain the diagnosis and treatment options at all stages of the disease so that patients can make really informed decisions and, with the rise in virtual consultations as a result of COVID-19, we need to work out the best approach for overcoming language barriers in that setting, too,” Martin concluded.


More than 1 in 10 patients with lung cancer do not know what type they have [news release]. EurekAlert; March 17, 2021. Accessed March 17, 2021.

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