Every three and a half minutes someone will die from lung cancer in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association. Despite this striking number, more Americans than ever are surviving lung cancer.
As the nation observes Lung Cancer Awareness Month, the disease remains the leading cause of cancer deaths among both women and men. Yet, the survival rate has dramatically increased over the past 10 years.
Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. About 80 percent of lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking. This percentage is probably even higher for small cell lung cancer (SCLC). This month, however, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is warning that anyone can get lung cancer, including people who smoke, people who have quit, and people who have never smoked.
“Lung cancer has long been linked to smoking, which, unfortunately, has led to blaming the victim, and the stigmatization of lung cancer and people who develop this disease. This stigma can lead people to avoid screening and early diagnosis,” said William Cance, M.D., chief medical and scientific officer, American Cancer Society, in a news release. “Nobody deserves to be blamed for developing lung cancer.”
About 25,000 people who have never smoked die of lung cancer each year. If counted as a separate category, lung cancers not caused by smoking would rank among the top ten causes of cancer deaths, states the ACS. (Continue reading below.)
Infographic by Irina de Souza
About 32.4 million U.S. adults still smoke cigarettes, and smoking remains the single largest preventable cause of death and illness in the world. Additionally, e-cigarettes or vaping devices are increasingly being used by teenagers and young adults. These vape devices can increase the potency of the nicotine, one of the most addictive chemicals, delivered to the lungs of the user. The possible link between vaping products and cancer has yet to be established because e-cigarettes have been on the market for just a few years.
“Before anyone considers using any sort of tobacco or vape product, they should know that they both present significant health risks,” says Mark Dylewski, M.D. , chief of general thoracic surgery at Miami Cancer Institute .
In addition to smoking, there are a variety of risk factors associated with lung cancer, including exposure to radon gas, air pollution, secondhand smoke, and exposure to other cancer-causing agents in the workplace. A personal or family history of lung cancer can also raise your risk.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends yearly lung cancer screenings for current or former smokers, with a smoking history of 30 or more “pack years” — which refers to smoking one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years. Those recommendations are for adults, ages 55 to 80, who either currently smoke or quit within the past 15 years.
The ACS recommends yearly lung cancer screening with a low-dose CT scan (LDCT) for people at higher risk for lung cancer. Screening can detect lung cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be effective. “If you currently smoke or previously quit, are age 55 or over, and in fairly good health, talk with your healthcare provider about your risk for lung cancer, what to expect from screening, and if screening is a good option for you,” the ACS states.
According to the ACS, regardless of whether you have ever smoked, the most common symptoms of lung cancer are:
- A cough that does not go away or gets worse
- Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
- Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing or laughing
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired or weak
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that do not go away or keep coming back
- New onset of wheezing