The truth about lung cancer: Debunking myths that still exist

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In 2018, more than 230,000 Americans, including 7,000 Georgians, will be diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite its prevalence, there are still many myths surrounding this disease which is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women.

For example, many believe that men and smokers are more susceptible to lung cancer; however, recent stats demonstrate lung cancer has been increasing among two groups in particular: women and non-smokers — something not widely reported. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, over the past 36 years the rate of new lung cancer cases among men has dropped by nearly a quarter, while the rate among women has risen 100 percent.

Below, I’d like to debunk some additional myths about lung cancer:

MYTH: Lung cancer is a smokers-only disease.

FACT: While it’s true that most people with lung cancer are (or were) smokers and that smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, 10 percent of people overall diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. The symptoms between smokers and non-smokers, however, are basically the same:

♦ Persistent or worsening cough

♦ Ongoing chest pain

♦ Coughing up blood

♦ Shortness of breath or wheezing

♦ Hoarseness of voice

♦ Difficulty swallowing

♦ Loss of appetite

♦ Fatigue

♦ Recurrence of pneumonia or bronchitis

MYTH: I’ve smoked for years, so quitting now won’t help.

FACT: According to National Institutes of Health, if you quit smoking by the age of 35, you will live 5-10 years longer and decrease the risk of cancer and heart disease. In addition, kicking the habit raises the success rate of surgery, increases the effectiveness of treatment and lowers the risk of dying from causes other than lung cancer.

MYTH: I’m fine because my primary care physician automatically screens all patients for lung cancer.

FACT: Not all primary care doctors appropriately screen patients who qualify for screening, even though they should. According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force, you should be screened if you are: a current smoker or quit within the last 15 years; between the ages of 55 and 80; or have smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 30 years. The fact of the matter is more than 25,000 lives would be saved if everyone considered high risk for lung cancer were screened. Currently, Georgia (with a population of over 10 million) boasts only 3.8 screening centers per million people.

MYTH: Lung cancer can’t be treated.

FACT: While lung cancer typically isn’t curable, it can be treated. Treatment can often not only extend life, but also help alleviate some of the symptoms of cancer as well. Depending on the type and stage of lung cancer you have, your treatment options may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapies or a combination of these treatments. Survival rates depend on several factors, including how early a tumor is found, whether the cancer has spread beyond the lungs and the quality of treatment, but if lung cancer is caught before it spreads, the likelihood of surviving five years or more improves to 56 percent.

Key takeaways: It’s critical to be educated about the real risks of lung cancer and options for treatment. If you’re a smoker, it’s important to stop smoking to decrease your lung cancer risks. If you’ve ever smoked and/or you are over 55, ask to be screened for lung cancer. Listen to your body and seek treatment as soon as you suspect you have symptoms of lung cancer.

Dr. Patricia Rich.jpg
Dr. Patricia Rich
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