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November 26, 2018

You Don’t Have to be a Smoker to Get Lung Cancer

Six Facts Everyone Should Know About the World’s Most Common Cancer  

Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP

This year, more than 230,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer, bringing the number of people living with the disease to over half a million. Of those, 150,000 will lose their battle—more than the next three deadliest cancers combined. While many people are quick to label lung cancer as a smokers’ disease—and a male smokers’ disease at that—there’s so much more everyone needs to know.

While it’s true more than 80 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have smoked, 30,000 people who have never lit a cigarette are diagnosed every year. Despite being the leading cause of cancer death for men and women, most people misunderstand the disease and miss some of the risk factors and warning signs as a result.

Here are the six most important facts about lung cancer I share with patients. Many people—especially women—are caught off guard by lung disease, and a little awareness goes a long way to finding and treating it early.  

  1. Smoking is by far the biggest lung cancer risk factor, but there are others too. Radon gas, secondhand smoke, workplace carcinogens (like asbestos and diesel exhaust), air pollution and gene mutations have all been tied to lung cancer.
  2. Lung cancer mostly affects older people, but young people are still at risk. More than 85 percent of people living with lung cancer are over the age of 60. Still, 30,000 young people will be diagnosed this year.
  3. Lung cancer affects women more today. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer, but the paradigm is shifting. In the last 40 years, the incidence of lung cancer among men has dropped by almost half, but for women, it has nearly doubled.
  4. It is the leading cause of cancer death in women. Lung cancer claims more lives than breast, uterine and ovarian cancer combined.
  5. Early detection is critical. The five-year survival rate when lung cancer is detected early is above 50 percent but falls to less than five percent once the cancer has progressed. Only 16 percent of cases are identified early, which explains why more than half of people with lung cancer die within the first year of being diagnosed.
  6. Screening saves lives. Scans for high risk patients can decrease mortality by as much as 20 percent, saving roughly 12,000 lives. Eight million Americans qualify for annual screening, so talk to your provider about whether it makes sense for you.

If you’ve underestimated lung cancer, you’re not alone. Today, 641 people will be diagnosed, and some of them will be completely blindsided. Yes, smoking is by far the biggest contributor, but the nonsmokers out there can’t afford to ignore this deadly disease. Everyone with a set of lungs can be exposed to secondhand smoke, pollution and other toxins, and each body processes these toxins differently. Knowing the facts about lung cancer is the best first step to fighting it, so talk with a nurse practitioner (NP) or other provider if you think you may be at risk.