Despite lung cancer being pretty common in Australia (and around the world), there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding lung cancer. I’m going to share with you some of the important facts and myths surrounding lung cancer.
Myth: Lung cancer only affects people who smoke
One of the biggest myths floating around about lung cancer is that it’s a disease that affects smokers alone. While cigarette smoking is responsible for a lot of lung cancer, people who have never smoked can also develop lung cancer. We estimate that up to one in five people who get lung cancer have never smoked or had any significant exposure to passive smoke. For people who don’t smoke, exposure to radon may be responsible. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is fortunately, at quite low levels in Australia. There are also some genes that are associated with lung cancer, especially in younger women. While this may seem like bad news, a number of new treatments have been discovered that directly target these genetic mutations.
Whatever the cause, lung cancer is never deserved and everyone deserves the best possible healthcare regardless of health choices they have made. While anti-smoking legislation and messages are geared at helping people quit or preferably, never start in the first place, most of the work around tobacco control is aimed at tobacco companies.
Fact: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death
In any given day, 23 Australians die of lung cancer. Every year, over 11,500 people are diagnosed with lung cancer, a figure that is expected to rise with time. While lung cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed type of cancer, it is the leading cause of cancer death for men and women in Australia. While survival has increased in last few decades as treatment and detection has improved, it’s still a very difficult cancer to treat and sadly, around 14% of people survive past five years from their diagnosis.
It’s important to keep in mind though, despite these seemingly gloomy statistics, it’s only a very broad set of numbers that don’t take into account people’s individual circumstances so hope is not lost. Lung cancer desperately needs more research funding too, to support the amazing work being done around the world to try and fight lung cancer.
Myth: Only older people get lung cancer
Lung cancer tends to be associated with older people, however, it can happen in young men and women. Thankfully, getting lung cancer at younger ages is quite rare. It’s estimated that only 1-2% of people who get lung cancer are below the age of 40 years old. There are also some types of lung cancer that we see more often in younger people that are very treatable. People who have lung cancer at younger ages tend to be female and have a higher number of genetic mutations.
It’s important for a lot of diseases but absolutely for lung cancer to not ignore any problems that could alert us to a problem earlier on. Early detection makes a huge difference to treatment. If you have a cough that won’t go away, breathlessness, coughing up blood or pain in the chest, whatever your age, get it checked.
Fact: Lung cancer can sometimes be detected early
When it comes to treating lung cancer, the earlier on we catch it, the better. Lung cancer can spread quickly and make treatment quite difficult. Several years ago, a big study looked at doing CT scans of people who were at risk for lung cancer to try and detect lung cancer early on. They found that when these people had a CT scan for three years in a row, the risk of dying from lung cancer was markedly reduced.
Now not everyone should get a CT scan to check for lung cancer. All tests carry risks so we don’t want to expose people to them without a good reason. However, if you have have been a smoker in the last 15 years (or still smoke), are aged between 55 and 80 or have smoked the equivalent to 30 pack years (equal to a pack a day for 30 years, or two packs a day for 15 years and so on), it’s important to discuss with your GP about doing a low-dose CT scan. Chest x-rays are a more simple type of test to look at your lungs but unfortunately, they’re not quite as good at picking up problems.
Myth: More women die of breast cancer than lung cancer
Breast cancer has made remarkable achievements in early detection and funding research. However, what a lot of people don’t realise is that in Australia, lung cancer kills more people than prostate, breast and ovarian cancer combined. In women, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death. It’s vitally important for women to remember the health of their whole bodies and when you get a breast check or a Pap smear, don’t hesitate to discuss with your doctor how the rest of your health is going.
Myth: After you’re diagnosed with lung cancer, there’s no point quitting smoking
Whilst I would love people to never smoke altogether, I know that a number of Australians still do smoke. A number of people who get a diagnosis of lung cancer (or any lung problem) quit smoking immediately while some keep going because, well the damage has been done right? However, whatever the disease, quitting smoking improves your survival. For those with lung cancer, we know that if you have surgery on the lung to remove the cancer, those people recover much better with fewer complications. Quitting also reduces your risk of getting a second lung cancer or any of the other dozens of cancers and health problems that smoking has been associated with.
As always, if you’re concerned about your lungs or your own risk of lung cancer, make sure you see your GP.