This Lung Cancer Awareness Month, the American Cancer Society is shining the spotlight on something many people may not realize: Anyone can get lung cancer. The fact is, people who have never smoked or who have quit smoking can get lung cancer, too.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer for both men and women, and accounts for 1 in 4 cancer deaths overall in the U.S. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.
And although smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer – about 80% of lung cancer deaths are estimated to result from smoking – it can be diagnosed in anyone. In fact, about 25,000 lung cancer deaths each year occur in people who never smoked. If counted as a separate category of cancer death, it’s estimated that lung cancers not caused by smoking would rank seventh among the top 10 causes of cancer death. Unfortunately, many lung cancer patients, including those who smoked and those who never smoked, experience stigma around their diagnosis.
“While lung cancer can affect anyone, people with lung cancer are often made to feel that they are to blame for their disease,” said Robert Smith, PhD, senior vice president, cancer screening and principal investigator of the National Lung Cancer Roundtable. “It’s common for people who provide social support, such as health care professionals, friends, and family, to convey through words and actions a sense that the person with lung cancer brought it on themselves. That needs to stop. People with lung cancer deserve to be treated with compassion and empathy.”
This stigmatization can greatly affect quality of life and can leave lung cancer survivors feeling isolated. Some lung cancer survivors avoid aspects of self-care because of stigma and guilt, which can affect treatment outcomes. Tobacco control efforts, which have saved millions of lives, have unfortunately contributed to stigma not just against smoking, but against people who smoke, as well. This stigma has direct effects on the timeliness of diagnosis and level of care people seek and receive.
Some other important information about lung cancer includes:
- There are steps people can take to lower risk, including not smoking, reducing exposure to radon, asbestos, and other known cancer-causing chemicals, and eating a healthy diet.
- Screening for people at high risk is available. People who smoke or have quit, are age 55 or older, and who are in fairly good health should talk to their health care professionals about whether screening is right for them.
- People should report persistent symptoms to their health care professionals. Symptoms can include chronic cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, frequent respiratory infections, chest or rib pain, and fatigue.
- There is hope for people with lung cancer. Screening for those at high risk can help diagnose cancer early, when successful treatment is more likely. And new biomarker tests, drugs, and therapies that use the body’s own immune system are available and have significantly improved patient outcomes.
To learn more about how we’re attacking cancer from every angle, visit our special coverage page on cancer.org. To learn more about screening for cancer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.