November 09, 2021

Lung Cancer: Defining Risks and Debunking Myths

Lung cancer is on the rise, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the disease. We want to help you separate the facts from the myths.

Picture someone who has lung cancer. For most of us, an image of an older man who has smoked his whole life comes to mind. In truth, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among men and women, regardless of whether they have a history of smoking or not.

Did you know that 20 percent of Americans who die from lung cancer never smoked? There are so many myths when it comes to lung cancer, which kills more people each year than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we want to help debunk some of those myths to help you understand the whole truth when it comes to this deadly disease.

Smoking is the number one risk factor (but not the only one)

There is no question that smoking puts you at a much higher risk for lung cancer — it causes 80 percent of lung cancer deaths. And despite the surge in popularity of vaping, there is no “safe” tobacco product. The liquid used in battery-operated vaping devices may also contain cancer-causing agents.

Age is a factor when it comes to lung cancer, too. The average age at diagnosis is 70, though it can also be diagnosed in younger people. Still, other risk factors can play a part. Exposure to radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that enters homes from the outside, is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and the leading cause among people who don’t smoke. You can’t see or smell radon — that’s why it’s critical to get your home tested or pick up a home test kit. Other lung cancer risk factors include exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, exposure to asbestos in certain occupations or from older buildings, and a family history of lung cancer. When it comes to marijuana use, experts say more studies are needed to know whether it is linked to lung cancer. But tar and many of same cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke are also found in marijuana smoke.

Who gets lung cancer?

If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer, but misconceptions about who gets the disease can keep people from talking to their doctors about screening or taking key steps to limit their risk. Whether they smoke or not, men face a 1 in 15 chance of developing lung cancer in their lifetime, while for women it’s about one in 17. There is also some difference among lung cancer rates by race and ethnicity that reflect historic smoking patterns. Black men are about 15 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than white men, but among Black women, the lung cancer rate is about 14 percent lower than in white women.

There is some evidence that healthy habits can make a difference in reducing your risk when it comes to lung cancer. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is linked to a lower risk of developing the disease for both smokers and nonsmokers. But we can’t say this enough: smoking increases your risk of lung cancer regardless of your age, race, or gender.

Lung cancer symptoms are identical for smokers and non-smokers

One of the reasons lung cancer can be so deadly is that it doesn’t cause any symptoms until it has already spread. Once symptoms emerge, some people may assume they are the result of other conditions. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored spit or phlegm
  • Chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply, cough, or laugh
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to discuss them with your doctor.

Targeted lung cancer treatment leads to better results

A lung cancer diagnosis can be frightening, but not all lung cancer is deadly, and not all lung cancers are the same. There are three subtypes of lung cancer — non-small cell, small cell, or carcinoid. Small cell lung cancer comprises about 10-15 percent of lung cancers and is strongly related to smoking and considered the most aggressive. About 80-85 percent of lung cancers are non-small lung cancer, the most common of lung cancers. If you receive a non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis, your doctor may recommend comprehensive biomarker testing to identify the genetic drivers causing your cancer to grow. Biomarker testing can identify genetic changes in some tumors to help guide treatment and decisions to improve outcomes.

Blood-based tests are in development that would allow for earlier detection of multiple cancers, including lung cancer, by a routine, non-invasive test rather than waiting for symptoms.

Room for hope

Lung cancer can be scary. But whether you are about to get screened, are facing a diagnosis, or are weighing treatment options, there’s help out there for you and your loved ones:

LUNGevity: A national foundation that offers information and resources for individuals with lung cancer. In addition, LUNGevity recently launched the No One Missed campaign to encourage non-small cell lung cancer patients to speak to their doctors about biomarker testing to pursue the best care.

Lung Cancer Foundation of America: A national organization that funds research and offers patient resources including a podcast called “The First 7 Days” which helps people manage the initial aftermath of a lung cancer diagnosis.

American Lung Association: A national group that offers a variety of resources and information about lung cancer.

Lung cancer does not have to be a death sentence. While the statistics on lung cancer outcomes can be overwhelming, we’re seeing the number of new lung cancer cases and deaths from lung cancer continue to decrease as more people quit smoking and we make more advances in early detection and treatment.