Learning About Lung Cancer

Whether you’re a lifelong smoker or you’ve never touched a cigarette, the threat of lung cancer is looming. Learn the facts and the common misconceptions about this dangerous disease.

Just behind prostate cancer for men and breast cancer for women, lung cancer is the second most common cancer affecting adults in the U.S. Beyond its prevalence, it’s also considered the most deadly cancer for both men and women. More people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. “In our area of the country, we’re especially at risk for lung cancer,” says Dr. Rob Headrick, a thoracic surgeon with the CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center. “Certain environmental factors and a large population of smokers have created a perfect storm for the disease.”

Survival statistics vary depending on the stage of the cancer when it is diagnosed, making early detection paramount. The signs and symptoms don’t typically occur until later stages, but with regular screenings, cancer can be identified and effectively treated before it’s too late.

The Lowdown on Lungs

The lungs are two sponge-like organs that enable the body to take more than 6 million breaths per year. They also help us talk, cheer, sing, laugh, and participate in cardiovascular exercise. They’re located behind the rib cage on either side of the heart, and the left lung is slightly smaller than the right, making room for the heart. Connected to your windpipe, each lung inflates when you take a breath. That air makes its way through the passages in the lungs and into the bloodstream to keep your body running. Dr. Headrick explains, “The lungs are part of the engine that gives our bodies horsepower. The heart pumps the blood, but the lungs give us the oxygen and vital components that make our muscles work and our brains think.”

The Two Main Types of Lung Cancer

When cells in the lungs develop mutations and begin to grow out of control, lung cancer forms. There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type in both smokers and nonsmokers alike, accounting for about 85% of lung cancers. It’s more common in women, and it accounts for several subtypes (adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma).

Small cell lung cancer makes up 10% to 15% of lung cancers. It grows rapidly and spreads quickly, but it typically responds well to treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, if caught early enough.

Common Misconceptions

More often than with other common diseases, lung cancer tends to be associated with some major misconceptions. Take time to readjust your thinking so that you can remain fastidious with your health.

Misconception #1: “It’s just a smoker’s disease.”

Tobacco smoke is the leading and most obvious risk factor for lung cancer, but it’s not the only one. Dr. Headrick explains, “At least 20% of people who get lung cancer today have never touched a cigarette. Beyond that, women nonsmokers are seeing the greatest spike in lung cancer diagnoses.”

Radon, a natural radioactive gas that cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, is the second leading cause of lung cancer and the leading cause among nonsmokers. It becomes dangerous when concentrated in enclosed areas such as houses, schools, or basements. High levels of radon exposure can be equivalent to smoking a half pack or pack of cigarettes a day.

Exposure to certain chemicals and minerals can also increase your lung cancer risk. Those who work in mines, mills, textile plants, or around insulation and are routinely exposed to asbestos and other substances known to cause cancer, such as arsenic, chromium, and nickel, are at a higher risk. “For people who are frequently exposed to many of these substances and who also smoke, the risk of getting lung cancer is even higher,” says Dr. Minerva Covarrubias, a pulmonologist with Parkridge Medical Group – Diagnostic Center.

Misconception #2: “I’m too young to get lung cancer.”

While the typical lung cancer patient is 72, it can impact adults of all ages. In fact, younger people are typically diagnosed with a more advanced stage of lung cancer than older patients. That’s because it’s easy to confuse symptoms for asthma, bronchitis, or even allergies in young, healthy, never-smokers. But the causes behind lung cancer tend to vary by age. In younger patients, it is most likely due to a hereditary genetic predisposition, while smoking or exposure to cancer-causing agents is most often responsible for disease development in older adults.

Misconception #3: “I’ve been smoking my whole life, so there’s no point in stopping now.”

Even if you have a long history of smoking, quitting at any age can help reduce your risk of developing lung cancer. Plus, not only will quitting lower your risk for lung cancer, it will also significantly improve your overall health. The American Cancer Society reports that just one year after quitting smoking your excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of someone who still smokes, and 10 years after quitting, your risk of dying from lung cancer is about half that of a person who still smokes.

Misconception #4: “I quit smoking a long time ago, so if anything was wrong, it would have shown up already.”

While quitting smoking can lessen your risk of developing lung cancer significantly, you’re not out of the woods entirely. Remember that symptoms aren’t always evident in the early stages. Your current risk is determined by how long you smoked and how much you smoked.

To more clearly define your smoking intensity, calculate your “pack years” by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years you smoked. For example, you have a 20-pack-year smoking history if you smoked one pack per day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years. The more pack years you’ve accumulated, the higher your risk. Heavy smokers or those who started young should have an annual screening for at least 15 years after quitting.

The Importance of Early Detection

A quick, 10-minute screening can save your life. Don’t hesitate to get checked out!"

While receiving a lung cancer diagnosis is incredibly scary, treatments are available. Dr. Covarrubias shares, “The treatment of lung cancer has come a really long way over the last few years with improved surgical techniques and new medications that are better tolerated and more effective than in the past.”

That being said, the most important aspect of effective treatment is early detection. Discovering lung cancer before it has spread can make all the difference. For the best chance of early detection, keep up with regular screenings. “The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has agreed to cover the cost of CT screening in approved programs for those aged 55-77 who have no symptoms of lung cancer, have smoked the equivalent of one pack per day for 30 years, are current smokers, or if they have quit within 15 years,” explains Dr. Covarrubias.

Picture of Dr. Rob Headrick Thoracic

Dr. Rob Headrick Thoracic

Surgeon, CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center

Picture of Dr. Minerva Covarrubias

Dr. Minerva Covarrubias

Pulmonologist, Parkridge Medical Group – Diagnostic Center

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