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5 Facts About Lung Cancer That Aren’t Well Known

Medically reviewed by Todd Gersten, M.D.
Written by Emily Brown
Posted on October 18, 2021

As with any health condition, there are nuances and complexities to lung cancer that are easy to miss, even if you've read all about it. Although it’s impossible to know everything there is to know about lung cancer, chances are if you or someone close to you has the condition, you want to know as much as you can.

Knowledge is power, both in terms of living with lung cancer or advocating for someone with it, so consider these facts to empower you as you travel along your lung cancer journey.

1. Smoking Is Not the Only Cause of Lung Cancer

Though smoking cigarettes is the No. 1 risk factor of lung cancer, causing approximately 90 percent of cases in the United States, it’s not the only cause. A study of lung cancer risk factors worldwide found that genetic factors, diet, air pollution, and occupational exposures may contribute to the development of lung cancer.

Research is ongoing as to how diet impacts lung cancer risk. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), some evidence indicates that beta carotene supplements may increase risk among smokers. Other supplements and natural therapies may also help manage lung cancer symptoms.

Regarding occupational exposures, workers have a right to question their employers about how clean the air is (or was) on the job. Some examples of occupational exposures include:

  • Asbestos
  • Metals such as chromium and nickel
  • Silica
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (chemicals released during combustion of organic materials)
  • Diesel exhaust

Secondhand smoke is also a cause of lung cancer. Researchers say there is no level of secondhand-smoke exposure that is completely free of risk.

Learn more about what causes lung cancer.

2. Some Lung Cancer Risk Factors Are Unique to Women

More men get diagnosed with lung cancer each year, but more women live with lung cancer, according to data from the NCI. Furthermore, studies have shown an increased rate of lung cancer cases among “female never-smokers,” according to research in ESMO Open. The reason for these trends remains unclear. It could be biological, such as hormonal influences, or it may be due to genetics. It could have something to do with occupations dominated by women or even environmental exposures.

Researchers believe that more data is needed to fully illuminate the risk factors unique to women. Of note, lung cancer during pregnancy remains largely uncommon.

3. Lung Cancer Occurs in a Variety of Age Groups

Lung cancer is most often seen in older people — the average age at diagnosis is 70 years old. However, young people are affected as well. Ten percent of lung cancer cases occur in people younger than 55 years old.

Studies on non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) show that younger people (ages 20 to 46) with lung cancer are more likely to be female and nonsmokers. In addition, they typically present at more advanced stages of disease. The good news is that young people with NSCLC tend to have a better prognosis, with the greatest benefits seen in the early stages.

Learn more about the prognosis for non-small cell lung cancer.

4. Chemotherapy Isn’t Always Necessary for People With Lung Cancer

Lung cancer treatment is very different depending on the type of cancer. There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

Most lung cancer is NSCLC, accounting for approximately 80 percent to 85 percent of cases. NSCLC is further broken down into subtypes — adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma — which are grouped together because the treatment for them is usually similar. SCLC is less common, representing about 10 percent to 15 percent of all lung cancers.

People with NSCLC can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these. According to the American Cancer Society, for NSCLC at stages 0 to 2, surgery may be the only treatment needed. People with advanced NSCLC may be treated with targeted therapy or immunotherapy without the need for chemotherapy.

On the other hand, SCLC can spread rapidly and has often spread by the time it is found, so chemotherapy is usually part of the treatment. The bottom line is that although many people often associate chemotherapy with cancer, it isn’t always the answer for lung cancer and depends on the cancer type and stage.

Learn more about treatments for lung cancer.

5. Lung Cancer Rates Are Going Down

The rate of new cases of lung cancer is on the decline, as is the rate of lung cancer deaths. From 2009 to 2018, the age-adjusted rate for new lung and bronchus cancer cases in the U.S. decreased by an average of 2.2 percent each year. In addition, the age-adjusted death rates have been falling an average of 3.8 percent each year over the same period, and five-year survival rates are increasing.

The decline can be attributed to better prevention, such as reduced smoking rates, and improved treatment, including targeted drug therapies. These decreases in cases and deaths highlight the fact that researchers and doctors are learning more about helping people reduce their risk. They also mean that health care professionals are learning more about how to treat people who live with lung cancer so that they can receive better care and live longer, healthier lives.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLungCancerTeam is the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones. On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 6,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Which lung cancer facts do you find the most compelling? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on October 18, 2021
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here
Emily Brown is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in health communication and public health. Learn more about her here

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