9 Things You Might Not Know About Lung Cancer

Healthy Living

November 19, 2020

Lung cancer is a deadly disease. In fact, it’s the number one cancer killer of both men and women, accounting for about a quarter of all cancer deaths.

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer kills more people than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

It can affect anyone, too, including smokers and nonsmokers. 

In recognition of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, here are nine more facts you probably don’t know about lung cancer.

#1) Over 6% of Americans get diagnosed with lung cancer at some point in their lives.

Each year, more than 220,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer. According to the LUNGevity Foundation, that means one in every 16 people will develop this disease, and one American gets diagnosed with lung cancer every 2.3 minutes.

As smoking rates have gone down, so, too, have the rates of lung cancer — slightly. 

Even still, over 500,000 people are currently living with lung cancer in the United States. The American Cancer Society says that about 116,300 men and 112,520 women will become lung cancer patients in 2020.

It’s not just the U.S. that’s hard-hit by this cancer, either. Worldwide, there were more than 2 million new diagnoses in 2018.

#2) Smokers are at least 13 times more likely to get lung cancer.

Most people who develop lung cancer are current smokers or have a history of smoking.

Being a current smoker raises your risk the most. Among male smokers, the chance of developing this cancer is 23 times higher than in nonsmokers. For female smokers, the risk is 13 times higher.

In general, the states with the highest rates of smoking also have the highest age-adjusted rates of lung cancer. Kentucky tops the list with 105.6 cases per 100,000 men and 77.5 cases per 100,000 women in 2015.

#3) But over 10% of lung cancer diagnoses are in patients who have never smoked.

Let’s bust this myth right now: lung cancer isn’t just for smokers.

Although smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer, people who have never touched a cigarette can still develop this disease.

Radon exposure is a significant risk factor. Approximately 21,000 people die of radon-related lung cancer each year. Smoking compounds the risk of radon-related disease. But nonsmokers can develop cancer after exposure to this gas as well. Installing a radon mitigation system in homes with high levels can help lower the risk.

Exposure to asbestos, uranium, coke oven emissions and air pollution can also lead to lung cancer.

As with radon gas, these environmental exposures cause cancer most often in smokers but can affect nonsmokers, too.

And you don’t have to be a smoker yourself to end up with smoking-related lung cancer. Secondhand smoke leads to over 7,000 annual lung cancer deaths. Frequently breathing in others’ cigarette smoke could boost your risk of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30%.

#4) Most lung cancer diagnoses are in people over age 65.

Lung cancer isn’t typically a young person’s disease. 

The American Cancer Society says that 70 is the average age for receiving this diagnosis. And figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that over 98,000 Americans between the ages of 70 and 84 were diagnosed with lung and bronchus cancers in 2017.

That said, no age bracket is immune. 

In 2017, nearly 10,000 people ages 50 to 54 and over 20,000 people ages 55 to 59 got diagnosed with lung cancer. Even very young kids can be at risk. At least 16 children ages 1 to 4 received lung cancer diagnoses in the same year.

#5) Nearly 1 in 4 cancer deaths is caused by lung cancer.

Lung cancer has a low 5-year survival rate — just 19% for all people with all types of lung cancer. It takes the lives of more Americans than any other type of cancer. That holds true for both men and women and across ethnic groups.

Of course, type of lung cancer, staging, age, gender and other factors can affect outcome and survival rate. But on the whole, this kind of cancer has a relatively low survival rate.

Approximately 22% of all cancer deaths in the U.S. are due to lung cancer. 

If you added up every death from breast, colon and prostate cancer in the U.S. for a year, you still wouldn’t reach the number of American men and women killed annually by lung cancer.

#6) Women have a 1-in-17 chance of developing lung cancer.

Some people think of lung cancer as a disease that primarily affects men. While that was once fairly accurate, it’s no longer the case. 

Between 1975 and 2015, cases of lung cancer among women rose 84%. During that same time, the rates among men fell 36%.

In 1987, lung cancer overtook breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths among American women, and it’s stayed in that position ever since. 

Today, lung cancer claims the lives of 1.5 times more women than breast cancer each year.

Men are still diagnosed with lung cancer more often than women, but the 107,545 new cases among women in 2017 make it clear that this is not a male-only disease.

#7) Over 50% of patients die within one year of a lung cancer diagnosis.

Receiving a lung cancer diagnosis can be scary. As we mentioned, the survival rate is generally low among all lung cancer types.

One reason for the high mortality rate is that this type of cancer is typically diagnosed in later stages. 

Once the disease has spread to other organs, there’s only a 5% chance of living more than five years past diagnosis.

If lung cancer is caught before it spreads, the 5-year survival rate increases to 56%. Unfortunately, right now, less than 20% of cases are detected that early in the disease progression.

#8) Screening programs could reduce lung cancer deaths by at least 14%.

According to the American Lung Association, making lung cancer screening more common could lower the death rate. 

Low-dose CT screening can catch the disease before it moves to advanced stages. The organization advises that all high-risk people, such as smokers, should have this test done every year.

Annual testing for at-risk people could reduce lung cancer deaths in this population by 14% to 20%. The American Lung Association believes that screening just half of the 8 million Americans who qualify each year could save 12,000 lives.

#9) Quitting smoking may eventually cut your lung cancer risk in half.

Being a smoker will permanently increase your lung cancer risk. But data from the World Health Organization shows that quitting can help lower the odds.

Within 10 years of quitting, a former smoker’s chances of developing lung cancer are half that of someone who still smokes. Quitting can also help delay the onset of lung cancer.

It’s never too late to quit smoking. 

Giving up the habit by age 30 may add 10 years to your life, but quitting by age 60 still has the potential to give you three extra years.

And quitting is beneficial even after a cancer diagnosis. It can help treatments work more effectively and may reduce the risk of a recurrence or a second type of cancer.

Ready to quit? You don’t have to do it on your own. 

In fact, the Affordable Care Act made smoking cessation (quitting) more accessible to people with health insurance. Some form of smoking cessation is now a required benefit of many health plans. You can read more about that here, courtesy the American Lung Association.

Whatever you do, consider your health and the health of those around you. Quitting smoking isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.