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Top 10 Lung Cancer Myths

Common Misconceptions About Lung Cancer

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Updated March 24, 2013

Myths about the causes and treatment of lung cancer abound. Some of these are of academic interest only, but others may prevent individuals from seeking proper treatment -- such as a woman who told me she didn’t want potentially curative lung cancer surgery because her tumor would be exposed to air and spread. What is fact, and what is fiction when it comes to lung cancer myths?

Myth #1 - Only Smokers Get Lung Cancer

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In fact, the majority of people that develop lung cancer are ex-smokers. Ten percent of people overall, and 20% of women with lung cancer are lifelong non-smokers.

Myth #2 - More Women Die From Breast Cancer Than From Lung Cancer

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Lung cancer is an equal opportunity disease. Nearly half of lung cancer cases occur in women, and more women die from lung cancer than any other form of cancer. In 2005 (the most recent year where statistics are available), 69,078 women died from lung cancer, whereas 41,116 died from breast cancer.

Myth #3 - There is Nothing I Can Do to Lower My Risk of Lung Cancer

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Certainly avoiding smoking can lower your risk of developing lung cancer, but an awareness of other factors that may raise or lower your risk is helpful as well. Some environmental exposures such as radon can raise your risk, and occupational exposures account for 13% to 29% of lung cancers in men. On the bright side, a healthy diet and exercise appear to lower risk.

Myth #4 - Lung Cancer Rates Are Declining Now That Fewer People Smoke

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This can be true or false depending on your gender. From 1991 to 2005, lung cancer rates decreased 1.8% per year among men, but increased 0.5% per year among women.

Myth #5 - Living in a Polluted City is a Greater Risk Than Smoking

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Being exposed to diesel exhaust and air pollution does raise the risk of lung cancer; however, the risk is small in comparison to smoking.

Myth #6 - If I Already Have Lung Cancer, it Doesn't Pay to Quit Smoking

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There are several reasons to quit smoking after a diagnosis of lung cancer. Kicking the habit can raise the success rate of surgery, makes treatment more effective, and lowers your risk of dying from causes other than lung cancer.

Myth #7 - I Am Too Young to Have Lung Cancer

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Lung cancer is more common in older people, but can occur in young people and even children. One form of lung cancer, bronchioloalveolar cancer (BAC), appears to be increasing especially among younger non-smoking women.

Myth #8 - I Am Too Old for My Lung Cancer to be Treated

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Chronological age alone shouldn’t determine whether or not a lung cancer is treated. It appears that the young at heart are often able to tolerate chemotherapy as well as their younger counterparts, and have a similar quality of life following surgery. Performance status (a measure of how well a person is able to carry on ordinary daily activities) is a better indicator of how well someone will tolerate various treatments.

Myth #9 - Surgery Causes Lung Cancer to Spread

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There has been a surprisingly common belief, especially among African Americans, that if a lung cancer is exposed to air it will spread, and therefore, surgery is dangerous. Surgery does not cause lung cancer to spread, and in the early stages of lung cancer, it can offer a chance to cure the disease.

Myth #10 - Lung Cancer is a Death Sentence

Photo © Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar
Certainly the survival rate for lung cancer overall is not what we would hope. The majority of people are diagnosed with the disease at a stage beyond which a cure is possible. But even if a lung cancer is not curable, it is still treatable. And treatment can often not only extend life, but help lessen some of the symptoms of cancer as well.

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