Top 10 Lung Cancer Myths—Fact and Fiction

Falacies About the Causes and Treatment of Lung Cancer

Myths about the causes and treatment of lung cancer abound. Some of these are of academic interest only. Yet some of these myths could be dangerous. For example, believing that only smokers get lung cancer could result in a delay in diagnosis for someone who doesn't smoke. Some people have believed the myths that tumors spread with surgery, and have forgone potentially curative surgery.

Some of the inaccuracies actually stem from awareness. All of the awareness campaigns about the dangers of smoking have overshadowed the fact that non-smokers are diagnosed with the disease every day. All of the advocacy surrounding breast cancer has been wonderful, but many people do not realize that a non-smoking woman is more likely to die from lung cancer.

What is fact, and what is fiction when it comes to lung cancer myths?

Myth Myths #1—Only Smokers Get Lung Cancer

one of the myths of lung cancer is that it only happens in smokers
The top myth about lung cancer is that only smokers get it. Ian Sanderson/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The majority of people who develop lung cancer in 2018 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 who are diagnosed 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. The symptoms of lung cancer in non-smokers often differ from those in people who smoke. Why? The type of lung cancer found most often in non-smokers (lung adenocarcinoma) 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 and vague symptoms such as mild shortness of breath.

Yet another significant point is that while lung cancer related to smoking is decreasing, lung cancer in young adults 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 is often missed in non-smokers compared to smokers, resulting in a delay in treatment. i
  • Symptoms of lung cancer in non-smokers are often different than those in people who smoke.
  • Lung cancer in young non-smokers is increasing.

Myth #Myths #2—More Women Die From Breast Cancer Than From Lung Cancer

Photo © Flickr user Aine D

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. And while lung cancer overall is decreasing, it is increasing in young, never-smoking women.

And just as the symptoms of lung cancer differ between non-smokers and smokers, the symptoms of lung cancer in women can be different.

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

Photo © Flickr user The Green Party

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 checked 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. Considering that lung cancer is the leading cancer-related cause of death for both men and women, perhaps everyone should add some of these lung cancer superfoods to their diet.

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 2-18 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. Smoking cessation is important, but we need to start looking for the other causes.

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

We have learned that air pollution causes lung cancer. Exposure to diesel exhaust and air pollution in general is thought to be responsible for 3 to 5 percent of lung cancers in the U.S., and possibly higher numbers in Europe. In Asia, cooking may increase the risk.

Yet, these numbers pale in comparison to smoking. We can't necessarily do much about our exposure to air pollution today, but there is still plenty we can do to lower our risk. (Have you picked up your radon test kit yet?)

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.

If that's not enough, there's more.

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. Lung cancer in older adults is treatable at any stage of the disease.

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.

The treatments for lung cancer are improving and the survival rates are improving as well. Even with advanced lung cancer there have been significant advances. Targeted therapies are now available for people with targetable mutations which can hold lung cancer at bay as a chronic disease for some time. These medications are also usually much more tolerable than chemotherapy. Immunotherapy drugs have been remarkable for some people with advanced lung cancer, and in a subset of people have resulted in "durable responses" (a term which oncologists use because the word cure will never be used). If you haven't heard about these treatments, it's not surprising. The first drug in this category was only approved for lung cancer in 2015.

Bottom Line on Lung Cancer Myths

Some lung cancer myths are simply annoying and frustrating. But others could be detrimental and lead people to wait too long if they have symptoms or to forego treatments which could be beneficial. Spread the news. Let people know that non-smokers get lung cancer too and that the first symptoms are often vague and subtle. And if you have an older friend who believes lung cancer is too challenging to treat, ask that she see an oncologist who has experience working with older people. Survival rates are improving but awareness is needed.


American Cancer Society. Key Lung Cancer Statistics. Updated 01/04/18.