It's easy to think of lung cancer as something that will only affect you if you're a smoker, or possibly something that can only happen to older people. However, these are just two of the many misconceptions that people tend to have about lung cancer. Take a look at some of the surprising facts that you may not know about lung cancer, and find out if you or someone you care about is at risk.
Smokers Aren't The Only Ones Affected
While the connection between smoking and lung cancer is undeniable, smokers aren't the only people that are affected. As a matter of fact, up to 20% of the people who die from lung cancer annually are non-smokers (although some portion of these patients develop cancer due to exposure to secondhand smoke.) The fact is, if you have lungs, it's possible that you are at risk for lung cancer, even if you've never smoked a cigarette in your life.
Of the factors unrelated to tobacco use that cause lung cancer, the leading cause of lung cancer is exposure to radon gas. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that is harmless in small amounts but dangerous in large quantities. People whose homes are located on soil that contains large amounts of uranium are at particular risk. Other risk factors for lung cancer include exposure to workplace carcinogens like asbestos or diesel exhaust, exposure to air pollution, and certain genetic mutations.
Younger Adults Are At Risk As Well
It's true that a majority of people diagnosed with lung cancer are senior citizens – currently, the average age of a patient at diagnosis is 72. However, 13.4% of cancer diagnoses are made in patients under the age of 50. That translates to around 30,000 people under the age of 50 that are diagnosed with lung cancer in a year.
What's more, younger patients tend to present with more advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis. This may happen because doctors, as well as the patients themselves, are less likely to consider lung cancer as an explanation for a younger patient's symptoms, precisely because of their age. By not considering it sooner, younger patients are more likely to have a delayed diagnosis. Younger lung cancer patients are also less likely to have smoked and are more likely to have gene mutations that contribute to cancer.
Women Are More Likely to Die From Lung Cancer Than Any Other Cancer
To some extent, lung cancer is thought of as a men's disease, and it's true that more men are diagnosed with the disease than women, and that lung cancer kills more men than any other cancer. But lung cancer also kills more women than any other kind of cancer, including breast cancer. The fact is that lung cancer is simply a particularly deadly cancer, no matter what your gender happens to be. That's why it's so important to know if you're at risk and seek treatment early.
Lung Cancer May Have Few (or No) Symptoms
Your lungs are designed for breathing, not for sensory perception. Therefore, they don't have an abundance of pain receptors that might make symptoms of lung cancer more obvious. The truth is that many patients show no symptoms at all until the cancer has spread past the lungs and into other parts of the body. Plus, any symptoms you may have early on could easily be overlooked or mistaken for symptoms of a different illness.
The most common early symptom of cancer is a persistent cough. Wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, and recurrent pneumonia or bronchitis are other possible early symptoms. It's easy to see how these symptoms can be mistaken for a particularly hard-to-shake respiratory illness, especially for a patient who notices them during cold and flu season. And of course, few patients experience all of these symptoms at once, and many experience none. The cancer is more likely to be caught when it spreads into nearby tissue, lymph nodes, or other organs and begins affecting those areas of the body instead.
Because lung cancer is so deadly and because an early diagnosis can be hard to get, it's important to be aware of your risk factors. Don't assume that you're safe because of your gender, age, or smoking status. If you believe you may have risk factors for lung cancer, it's important to talk to your doctor about risk-reduction strategies and lung cancer screening. For more information, contact a lung cancer center in your area.