Only smokers are at risk of getting lung cancer, right? Wrong. This is just one of many misconceptions about this disease, which is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths and second most common cancer in both men and women in the United States.
Lung cancer forms in the tissues of the lungs, most often in the cells that line air passages. It occurs when these cells start to grow and multiply uncontrollably. This out-of-control growth damages lung tissue and may stop the lung from working properly. While most cases are linked to tobacco smoking, a growing number of diagnoses are among non-smokers, especially among women.
“Up to 15% of lung cancer patients are people who have never smoked and this number has been rising in recent years in the U.S.,” Jiaxin Niu, MD, PhD, said. Dr. Niu is the director of the lung cancer program at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Az., said. Dr. Niu helps dispel some other myths about lung cancer.
MYTH: I can only get lung cancer when I get older – age 60 or more.
FACT: While the average age of diagnosis is 73, young people, including those who have never smoked, can get it too. Adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer, can often occur in nonsmokers, women and at younger age.
“I have plenty of patients younger than 50 years old,” Dr. Niu said. “And, the youngest one I have diagnosed was 28.”
MYTH: Lung cancer cannot be caused by air pollution.
FACT: Exposure to air pollution—and substances such as radon, asbestos, radiation and arsenic—can increase your risk of getting lung cancer.
MYTH: You cannot get lung cancer through exposure to secondhand smoke.
FACT: Secondhand smoke, the smoke that is exhaled by a smoker or comes off a burning cigarette that you then breathe in, can cause lung cancer.
“People who live with or who are often around smokers are at higher risk,” Dr. Niu said. “An analysis of 52 different studies found that the relative risk of lung cancer among nonsmokers who were exposed to secondhand smoke from their spouses was higher.”
MYTH: There is nothing I can do to lower my risk of lung cancer.
FACT: If you stop smoking and using tobacco—or never start—you can lower your risk of getting lung cancer. According to Banner MD Anderson, smoking tobacco in cigarettes, cigars or pipes is responsible for 87% of lung cancer cases in the United States Avoiding secondhand smoke and using protective gear when you’re exposed to harmful substances is also important.
MYTH: Lung cancer isn’t treatable.
FACT: “Lung cancer is absolutely treatable, and in particular, up to 60-90% of patients with early stage lung cancer can be cured by surgery alone,” Dr. Niu said. “Even for locally advanced lung cancer—stage 3, non-surgical candidates—up to 20% of patients can be cured with chemotherapy or radiation.”
Dr. Niu also says that the introduction of immunotherapy—using the body's own natural defenses to fight cancer—has greatly improved outcomes.
Understanding your risk for lung cancer is an important step in your health and getting that information shouldn’t be stressful. Talk with a Banner Health specialist to help determine if you should get a screening.