Lung Cancer in Young Adults

Differences and Resources for Young Adults with Lung Cancer

group of 5 young adults
How is lung cancer different in young adults, and what resources are available?.

Many people think of lung cancer as a disease of older people, but lung cancer does occur in young people. The public was reminded of this when Dana Reeve - wife of Superman and a never smoker - died from lung cancer at the age of 44. Of concern is that lung cancer in young adults appears to be increasing. How common is lung cancer in younger people, how does it differ from lung cancer in older patients, and what are some resources if you are a young lung cancer survivor?

Defining Lung Cancer in Young People

There aren’t any clear criteria defining “young” when it comes to lung cancer. Many studies and articles discuss lung cancer occurring under the age of 40 or 45 or 50. Other people would define “young” as being diagnosed with lung cancer before the age of 60. Currently, the average age at diagnosis is 72.

How Common is Lung Cancer in Young People?

At first glance, lung cancer in young people may seem uncommon. But considering that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women in the United States, even a small percentage can translate to many people with the disease. It's estimated that 224,210 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014 and 159,260 will die.  Of these people, 1.2 to 6.2 percent are under the age of 40, and 13.4 percent are under the age of 50.  A quick calculation reveals that roughly 30,000 people under the age of 50 will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014 and slightly over 21,000 young adults will die from the disease.

To put this in perspective, it's estimated that 40,000 people will die from breast cancer in 2014 and 20.8 percent of these women are under the age of 54. Another quick calculation estimates that 8300 women under the age of 54 will die from breast cancer. It's likely that many people would surprised by these numbers.

How is Lung Cancer in Young People Different?

When it comes to individual people with lung cancer, there are many variations in the type of cancer, characteristics of the cancer, and factors such as hereditary predisposition. But statistically, there are some ways in which lung cancer in young people is quite different from lung cancer in older people.  Some of these include:

Stage at Diagnosis Younger people tend to have more advanced lung cancer at the time of diagnosis than older patients; a greater number of young patients are diagnosed with stage 4 disease. This makes sense in some ways. Lung cancer—especially in young, healthy, never-smokers—isn’t  usually high on a doctor's radar screen, and this can result in a delay in diagnosis. Those who are young are often first diagnosed with asthma, bronchitis, or even allergies before the diagnosis is made.

Genetic Predisposition - People who are diagnosed with lung cancer at a young age are more likely to have other family members who have suffered from the disease.

It's likely that heredity plays a much larger role in lung cancer that develops in young patients than in older patients, and researchers are just beginning to identify some of the genes that may predispose young people to the development of lung cancer.

Smoking Status - Young people with lung cancer are more likely to be never smokers than people who develop lung cancer later in life.

Type of Lung Cancer - The most common type of lung cancer in young people is lung adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer, accounting for roughly 80 percent of lung cancers in young adults. Among older adults lung adenocarcinoma is found is slightly less than 50 percent of the time.

Molecular Profile - All young adults with lung cancer should have gene testing (molecular profiling) done. Young adults with lung cancer are more likely to have an EGFR mutation - a mutation in a gene that develops after birth and codes for a protein that "drives" the growth and spread of cancer.  A few studies have found these mutations to be present in around 50 percent of young adults compared with 10 percent of non-Asian older adults. (People of Asian ethnicity have a high incidence of EGFR mutations.) Thankfully a few targeted therapies are now available that address this mutation and can result in prolonged progression-free survival for many people with these mutations.

Survival Rate Studies vary, with some showing better survival and others poorer survival rates than older patients. In general, despite being diagnosed at a later stage, younger patients appear to fare better than older patients in recent studies.

Support - Young adults are not alone, as anyone of any age often suffers from the stigma of the disease. If a young adult is diagnosed with, say, leukemia or breast cancer, think of the first remarks someone may make. Instead, now consider the first words young people with lung cancer often hear upon meeting up with friends and acquaintances: "How long did you smoke?" Not only is this emotionally painful for young people who may feel isolated with their diagnosis in the first place, but they are often "blamed" for their disease whether or not they ever smoked. A young friend of mine had a good comeback when I introduced her to someone who asked this question. She said, "I would have had to start smoking in the womb."

Resources for Young Adults with Lung Cancer

Resources are available for young adults with lung cancer, and young adults with any form of cancer.  Some people with lung cancer prefer local and online support groups which includes only people with lung cancer.  The reason is fairly simple. If you are coping with stage 4 lung cancer and the frightening survival statistics, it may be hard to identify with a woman with early-stage breast cancer with a 5-year survival rate of over 90 percent who is most concerned about preserving her fertility.

In addition to support groups and chat rooms, some wonderful young lung cancer survivors have taken the time to blog about their journey - a journey that may help you feel less alone as you begin your own journey. Check out these blogs - many of which are written by young survivors with young families.

The Bonnie J. Addario lung cancer foundation is specifically addressing both the differences in molecular profiles for lung cancer in young adults and the unique needs of lung survivors. If you are 50 years old or younger with lung cancer, make sure to contact the foundation.

And for young adults with all forms of cancer:

  • Stupid Cancer: The Voice of Young Adult Cancer - This is a community that meets online as well as in person in order to empower young adults with cancer. There is also a Stupid Cancer radio show as well as a chance to meet face to face with other young adults with cancer from around the country at the annual summit and regional meet-ups.

Practical support for young adults with cancer:

  • The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults - This organization, in addition to other forms of support, provides a free one-on-one navigation system to help you address the many issues that young cancer patients may face, to help insure that no young adults face cancer alone. Some topics may include fertility concerns, how to return to work or school after treatment, college scholarships, financial assistance, and health and wellness concerns.
  • CancerCare - CancerCare provides support services such as free counseling, support groups (both in-person and online,) financial assistance, and educational workshops accessible from your phone or computer for people living with cancer and their families.


Hsu, C., Chen, K., Shih, J. et al. Advanced non-small cell lung cancer in patients aged 45 years or younger: outcomes and prognostic factors. BMC Cancer. 2012. 12:241.

Li, X, and K. Hemminki. Inherited predisposition to early onset lung cancer according to histological type. Internal Journal of Cancer. 2004. 112(3):451-7.

National Cancer Institute. Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program. SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Lung and Bronchus Cancer. Accessed 07/31/14.

National Cancer Institute. Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program. SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Breast Cancer. Accessed 07/31/14.

Yang, L. et al. A common genetic variant (97906C>A) of DAB2IP/AIP1 is associated with an increased risk and early onset of lung cancer in Chinese males. PLoS One. 2011. 6(10):e26944.

Zhang, J. et al. Multicenter analysis of lung cancer patients younger than 45 years in Shanghai. Cancer. 2010. 116(15):3656-62.

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