Lung cancer forms in the tissues of the lungs, most often in the cells that line air passages. It develops when these cells start to grow and multiply uncontrollably. This out-of-control growth damages lung tissue and may stop the lungs from working properly.
Unfortunately, lung cancer symptoms occur in advanced stages, and only 15% of the cases are diagnosed at early stages. That’s why it’s important to understand the facts about lung cancer.
Let’s look at seven common myths about lung cancer and the facts behind them.
Myth #1: Lung cancer is a smoker’s disease
Fact: There is a stigma that lung cancer only occurs in smokers, but 10% to 20% of lung cancers are found in non-smokers (people who never smoked or used tobacco). And this number has been rising in recent years, especially among women.
“Often these lung cancers are caused by exposure to radon, secondhand smoke, air pollution, workplace exposure to carcinogens like asbestos and exposures to other environmental toxins,” said Elbert Kuo, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Exposure to secondhand smoke can increase your risk of developing lung cancer by 20% to 30%. “Secondhand smoke can cause damage to your lungs and often contains more toxins than a smoker experiences due to filters on the cigarettes that are blocked for the actual smokers,” Dr. Kuo said.
[Read “Secondhand Smoke and Your Risk for Lung Cancer” for more details.]
Myth #2: If I smoke, there’s no point in quitting
Fact: It’s never too late to quit smoking and using tobacco. The sooner you quit, the more you can reduce your chances of getting cancer and other diseases. In fact, 10 years after quitting, you can reduce your risk for lung cancer by about half that of a person who is still smoking.
Kicking the bad habit can also help you immensely if you happen to get diagnosed with lung cancer. If you quit tobacco, you can increase your probability of survival by 30% to 40% and can ease the side effects associated with and the effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Myth #3: Lung cancer occurs mostly in men
Fact: Although lung cancer does affect more men than women (1 in 15 risk versus 1 in 17 risk), a greater percentage of women who develop lung cancer have never smoked.
“We are just beginning to learn about how the genetic and hormonal differences between men and women play a role in the development of lung cancer,” Dr. Kuo said.
Myth #4: I can only get lung cancer when I’m older (over the age of 60)
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 a younger age.
Myth #5: Lung cancer screenings cause lung cancer
Fact: It’s true that CT lung screenings expose people to radiation, but the exposure is about a quarter of the dose of a regular CT scan. In a year, the average person is naturally exposed to about 3 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation, whereas a low-dose CT lung screening scan is half (1.5 mSv) that.
“We always want to limit our radiation exposure, but the benefits of finding a lung cancer through low-dose CT scans have clearly saved lives,” Dr. Kuo said. “Newer technology and review of your scans by lung cancer experts have improved early diagnosis and treatment.”
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends lung cancer screenings through an annual low-dose CT scan for people ages 50 to 80 who have a 20-pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years.
Myth #6: All lung cancers are the same
Fact: There isn’t just one type of lung cancer. There are two main types of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Along with the two main types, other tumors can occur in the lungs as well.
NSCLC is the most common lung cancer, accounting for 80% to 85% of cases, and usually grows at a slower rate than SCLC. Typically, it causes few or no symptoms until it has advanced.
SCLC is typically caused by tobacco smoking and is the most aggressive form of lung cancer.
Myth #7: Everyone receives the same treatments for lung cancer
Fact: Just as no two lung cancers are alike, neither are the treatments to fight them. There are many great treatments for lung cancer, and they range from chemotherapy and immunotherapy (using your own body’s natural defenses,) to radiation and surgical resection.
“Lung cancer diagnosis and treatment require a customized treatment plan for patients and their cancer,” Dr. Kuo said. “Often the treatment consists of a combination of therapeutic methods – a multidisciplinary team – who coordinate care to ensure patients receive the best treatments that fit their individual needs.”
Today, up to 60% to 90% of patients with early-stage lung cancer can be cured by surgery alone. Even for locally advanced lung cancers – stage 3, non-surgical candidates – up to 20% can be cured with chemotherapy or radiation.
While there are some myths surrounding lung cancer, understanding your risk is an important step in your health — so is having the facts. If you have further questions or concerns, talk to your provider or find a Banner Health specialist near you at bannerhealth.com.