Top 10 Lung Cancer Myths - Fact and Fiction

Truth and Falacies About Lung Cancer

Myths about the causes and treatment of lung cancer abound. Some of these are of academic interest only, but others may prevent individuals from seeking proper treatment -- such as a woman who stated she didn’t want potentially curative lung cancer surgery because her tumor would be exposed to air and spread. What is fact, and what is fiction when it comes to lung cancer myths?

Myth #1 - Only Smokers Get Lung Cancer

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The majority of people who develop lung cancer in 2016 are not current smokers.In fact, the majority of people who develop lung cancer are either former smokers or never smokers.

Lung cancer occurs most commonly in former smokers, yet 20 percent of women with lung cancer are lifelong non-smokers. Put a different way, lung cancer in non-smokers is the 6th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

Unfortunately, since there is a lack of awareness that lung cancer occurs in non-smokers, it's been found that lung cancer is often diagnosed in the later (and less treatable) stages of the disease relative to people who smoke.

The importance of this point does not end here. Just as heart disease in men and women is often different, lung cancer in people who smoke and those who do not smoke often has different symptoms. The type of lung cancer found most often in non-smokers tends to occur in the outer regions of the lungs. In this location, the tumors can grow quite large, and often announce their presence with subtle symptoms such as mild shortness of breath.

Yet another significant point is that while lung cancer related to smoking is decreasing, lung cancer in non-smokers is increasing. In fact, for one group of people, the incidence of lung cancer is increasing significantly: young, never-smoking women. 

Take home points:

  • Non-smokers can get lung cancer
  • Lung cancer as a diagnosis is often missed (delay in diagnosis) relative to smokers.
  • Symptoms of lung cancer in non-smokers are often different than those in people who smoke.
  • Lung cancer in non-smokers is increasing.

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Myth #2 - More Women Die From Breast Cancer Than From Lung Cancer

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While breast cancer is more common than lung cancer, many people are shocked to learn that many more women die from lung cancer each year than die from breast cancer. In fact, there are more women who die from lung cancer each year in the U.S. than die from breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, and cervical cancer combined.

Lung cancer is an equal opportunity disease. Nearly half of lung cancer cases occur in women, 

In addition, there are some ways in which coping with lung cancer can be more difficult than coping with breast cancer. Certainly, there are exceptions and any form of cancer is devastating. But the lack of support and funding relative to breast cancer, leaves many female lung cancer survivors very lonely in "Pinktober."

Myth #3 - There is Nothing I Can Do to Lower My Risk of Lung Cancer

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If you smoked in the past, there is plenty you can do to both decrease your risk of developing lung cancer, and lowering your risk of dying from the disease should you develop lung cancer.

Smoking cessation, of course, is extremely important in reducing risk, but as noted above, never smokers are at risk as well. Exposure to  radon  in our own homes is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and many people have not check their homes for radon. To put this in perspective, around 40,000 people die from breast cancer each year and around 27,000 people die from radon-induced lung cancer.

Elevated radon levels have been found in homes in all 50 states and around the world, and the only way to know that you are being exposed to this odorless, colorless, gas is to test your home.

You may think of radon as being an industrial risk, and occupational exposures are indeed responsible for 13 to 29 percent of lung cancers in men. Yet, exposure to radon begins in the home, and in theory, women and children are at the greatest risk.

On the bright side, a healthy diet and exercise appear to lower risk.

Myth #4 - Lung Cancer Rates Are Declining Now That Fewer People Smoke

Overall, the rate of lung cancer is declining, but the news isn't all so good.

From 1991 until the present the rate of lung cancer has been slowly decreasing in men and stabilizing in women. As noted earlier, however, the incidence of lung cancer in never smokers and young people has been increasing. Nobody is certain why this is the case, and it doesn't seem to be related to secondhand smoke exposure. Unfortunately, the current focus on smoking cessation alone will do little to answer this question.  

Myth #5 - Living in a Polluted City is a Greater Risk Than Smoking

Being exposed to diesel exhaust and air pollution does raise the risk of lung cancer; however, the risk is small in comparison to smoking.

Myth #6 - If I Already Have Lung Cancer, it Doesn't Pay to Quit Smoking

There are several reasons to quit smoking after a diagnosis of lung cancer. Here are a few:

  • Survival is higher in people who quit than in those who continue to smoke.
  • There are fewer surgical complications in people who do not smoke.
  • Smoking can interfere with the effectiveness of some chemotherapy and targeted therapy drugs.
  • People who quit have fewer side effects from both chemotherapy and radiation therapy than those who smoke.
  • Those who quit are less likely to die from causes other than cancer.
  • People who quit are less likely to expose nearby non-smokers to secondhand smoke.

Check out other reasons why anyone with cancer should consider quitting the habit.

Myth #7 - I Am Too Young to Have Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is more common in older people, but can occur in young people and even children. In fact, it appears to be increasing in young non-smokers.

There are many ways in which lung cancer differs between young and older adults. Young people are more likely to have "actionable mutations" and therefore, while molecular profiling (gene profiling) is important for anyone with lung cancer, it is especially important for young adults with the disease.

Myth #8 - I Am Too Old for My Lung Cancer to be Treated

Chronological age alone shouldn’t determine whether or not a lung cancer is treated. It appears that the young at heart are often able to tolerate chemotherapy as well as their younger counterparts, and have a similar quality of life following surgery. Performance status (a measure of how well a person is able to carry on ordinary daily activities) is a better indicator of how well someone will tolerate various treatments.

Myth #9 - Surgery Causes Lung Cancer to Spread

Photo © Flickr user Jeff Kubina

There has been a surprisingly common belief, especially among African Americans, that if a lung cancer is exposed to air it will spread, and therefore, surgery is dangerous. Surgery does not cause lung cancer to spread, and in the early stages of lung cancer, it can offer a chance to cure the disease.

Myth #10 - Lung Cancer is a Death Sentence

Photo © Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar

Certainly the survival rate for lung cancer overall is not what we would hope. The majority of people are diagnosed with the disease at a stage beyond which a cure is possible. But even if a lung cancer is not curable, it is still treatable. And treatment can often not only extend life, but help lessen some of the symptoms of cancer as well.

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