7 Misconceptions About Lung Cancer You Need to Know
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7 Misconceptions About Lung Cancer You Need to Know

Diane Mapes — Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Nov 29, 2018

“Many assume that lung cancer is incurable by definition, when in reality there is a good chance we can cure it with appropriate treatment.” -- Dr. Bernardo Goulart

Lung cancer is an infuriating disease.

It kills more men and women than any other cancer yet funding for new therapies (or a cure) lags far behind other top killers. There’s an effective screening test for the disease, yet the people most at risk barely know about it.

Why does lung cancer continue to receive such little recognition and so few resources? One reason might be the murky misconceptions that surround it.

We tapped a handful of lung cancer patients and Dr. Bernardo Goulart, a physician-scientist with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, for insights into what the public — and sometimes even doctors — are getting wrong about a disease projected to kill nearly 155,000 Americans this year alone.

Here are their top takeaways.

Myth No. 1: If you don’t smoke, you don’t have to worry about lung cancer.

Yes, most lung cancers can be linked to smoking, but it’s hardly the sole cause of the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, about 20 percent of Americans who die of lung cancer (30,000 people) have never smoked or used any kind of tobacco.

Radon gas, the leading cause of the disease in nonsmokers, accounts for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. Secondhand smoke kills around 7,000 more. Asbestos, diesel exhaust, soot, previous radiation therapy and air pollution can also drive the disease, as can certain genetic mutations.

“It’s a common misconception that it’s only a disease of individuals who smoke,” said Goulart, a Hutch health economist with the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research and lung cancer oncologist with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner. “Many patients and even many physicians don’t even think about it when there’s no smoking history, even when there are obvious symptoms like weight loss or coughing up blood.”

The late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, author of “When Breath Becomes Air,” had symptoms for months before he went on to be diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, Goulart said. By then, the cancer was too advanced.

“Worldwide, 25 percent of lung cancer patients never smoked,” said Seattle stage 4 lung cancer patient Janet Freeman-Daily. “The only thing I ever smoked was salmon.”

The bottom line: if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. 

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