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Facts About Lung Cancer

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Updated September 22, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The facts about lung cancer can be sobering. Some of these may be familiar to you, and others may not. Here, the stunning reality of this disease.

Lung Cancer Statistics

As the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in the United States, lung cancer kills more people each year than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer, combined. In 2006, the last year for which we have statistics available, 196,454 people were diagnosed with lung cancer and 158,599 died.

The lifetime risk of developing lung cancer is 1 in 13 for men, and 1 in 16 for women. Though lung cancer is found in young people and even children, the average age at diagnosis is 71 years.

Lung Cancer Types

There are 2 major types of lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancers are responsible for 80% of lung cancers, and include adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and large cell lung cancers. Twenty percent of lung cancers are classified as small cell lung cancers. Small cell lung cancers are more common in people who smoke, and tend to spread early -- often before a diagnosis is made.

Lung Cancer Causes

It's commonly known that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, responsible for 80% to 90% of cases. It is less well known that exposure to radon in our homes is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and the leading cause in non-smokers.

Occupational exposures are also an important cause, accounting for up to 27% of lung cancers in men. Some other lung cancer causes include exposure to secondhand smoke and air pollution.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

Common symptoms of lung cancer include a cough that doesn't go away, or coughing up blood. Yet, in 25% of people, no symptoms are present. The early symptoms of lung cancer can often be mistaken for another problem, such as a lung infection, allergies, or muscle pain in the shoulder, back, or chest. Some may even dismiss them as "normal" changes that come with aging or deconditioning.

Lung Cancer and Smoking

Smoking is responsible for 87% of lung cancers. Quitting smoking at any age lowers this risk, but rarely does the risk return to that of a never smoker. For those with lung cancer, quitting smoking after diagnosis appears to improve survival in some cases, and is associated with a better response to treatment.

Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers

Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, but at the current time, the majority of people who develop lung cancer do not currently smoke. Overall, 10% to 15% of people with lung cancer have never smoked, and 50% are former smokers.

Lung Cancer in Women

Though once thought of as a man's disease, lung cancer in women is ever present. In 2006, the last year for which we have statistics, there were 106,374 men and 90,080 women diagnosed with lung cancer. Lung cancer kills nearly twice as many women as breast cancer; 20% of diagnosed women have never touched a cigarette.

Lung cancer in women differs from that in men in many ways, including the type of lung cancer most commonly found, the symptoms that are present at the time of diagnosis, and in survival rates at each stage of the disease. Sadly, unlike the recent decrease in the number of lung cancers diagnosed in men, lung cancer in women continues to increase.

Survival Rates

The overall 5-year survival rate for lung cancer is, sadly, only 15%. When lung cancer is caught in the early stages, survival rates are much higher. Research is being done to evaluate methods of screening for lung cancer in attempt to detect more lung cancers in these earlier stages.

Lung Cancer Prevention

Despite these statistics, lung cancer is still a largely preventable disease. Quitting smoking if you do, testing your home for radon, and avoiding secondhand smoke can all lower your risk of developing lung cancer. Studies also suggest that eating a healthy diet and exercising may reduce risk as well:

Lung Cancer Research

Many clinical trials are being conducted, looking at ways to prevent, detect, and treat lung cancer. Despite being the leading cause of cancer deaths, however, funding for lung cancer research lags behind that of several other cancers. As we work to dispel the stigma of lung cancer, hopefully that will change in the future.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell). What are the Key Statistics About Lung Cancer. Updated 07/28/10. http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/LungCancer-Non-SmallCell/DetailedGuide/non-small-cell-lung-cancer-key-statistics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lung Cancer Statistics. Updated 03/11/10. http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/statistics/

National Cancer Institute. Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results. SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Lung Cancer Bronchus. Accessed 06/05/10. http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/lungb.html#incidence-mortality

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