November is lung cancer awareness month (LCAM) and is intended to raise awareness about the potential causes and risk factors of the disease. It also promotes the need for screening, and the importance of research to identify more effective treatments.
Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, with over 46,000 people diagnosed each year, and approximately 35,000 annual deaths.
Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer, and causes 1 in 4 deaths from cancer in the UK. It is estimated that 100 million deaths in the last century are through lung cancer.
The most common type of lung cancer is non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) which makes up approximately 80 – 85% of all cases. Of these, about 30% start in the cells that form the lining of the body’s cavities and surfaces.
Small cell lung cancer (SCLS) is the second most common type of lung cancer and accounts for approximately 15 – 20% of lung cancers. SCLC grows and spreads more rapidly compared to NSCLC and it is more likely to respond to chemotherapy. However, cure rates are less likely with this form of treatment.
Despite the prevalence of lung cancer, there are misconceptions about the disease, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Find out more about what is true and what is a myth.
Only smokers develop lung cancer.
The majority of people who develop lung cancer are actually ex-smokers. In fact, 1 in 7 people do not smoke. Exposure to second hand smoke and substances such as asbestos and radon gas increase the risk of developing the disease. Certain people will also have a genetic disposition to developing lung cancer. Asian women have an increased risk without having smoked, with a number of these tumours having genetic mutations.
Only older people develop lung cancer.
Lung cancer is more common in older people, with the majority of people between the ages of 60 – 70, mainly due to long-term smoking. However, younger people also develop lung cancer, as early as their 20s with bronchioloalveolar cancer (BAC) increasing, especially among younger non-smoking women.
More women die from breast cancer compared to lung cancer.
Lung cancer does not discriminate, and nearly half of lung cancer cases occur in women. More women die from lung cancer than any other form of cancer; approximately 11,000 women died of breast cancer in 2017, with over 16,000 dying from lung cancer that same year.
Cigars do not harm you, as you do not inhale the smoke.
Although cigar smokers typically have lower rates of lung cancer compared to cigarette smokers, they are still at risk of developing the disease compared to non-smokers. Cigars actually contain higher concentrations of the same cancer-causing chemical that is found in cigarette smoke, and with large cigars taking anything from 1- 2 hours to smoke, you have an increased exposure to the toxins. Even if you do not inhale the chemicals, the mouth, lips and throat are still exposed to the chemicals, as is the oesophagus when you swallow saliva containing them.
There is no point in stopping smoking if I have been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Even stopping smoking once you have been diagnosed with lung cancer can have dramatic effects. People with early stage lung cancer can double their chance of survival if they stop as soon as they have been diagnosed. This will also improve the success rate of surgery and make treatment more effective. A patient will show physical improvements just 2 – 3 weeks after stopping smoking, such as improved circulation, better lung function and walking becoming easier. It is important to remember that smoking does not just increase your risk of lung cancer, and so stopping will decrease your risk of suffering from heart disease, a stroke and other cancers.
There is a low risk of developing lung cancer through smoking e-cigarettes.
There is not yet much long-term data on vaping, but ultimately you are still inhaling carcinogens, so there is a risk of developing lung cancer. The devices turn nicotine and other chemicals into a smoke-like vapour that the user inhales, and although there is no tar, they contain a number of chemicals such as nicotine, which is very addictive, along with diethylene glycol – a toxic ingredient, found in antifreeze. Research shows that over half of those who vape also smoke regular cigarettes. Scientists have identified short-term negative effects on breathing and the lungs that mirror the impact of cigarettes.
Lung cancer is a death sentence.
Although lung cancer mortality rates are high, it can be treated. Depending on the stage of lung cancer you have, treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapies, targeted therapies, or a combination of treatments.
The key to survival is catching the disease in its early stages. Symptoms to look out for include:
- A persistent cough that lasts for more than 3 weeks
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the back and shoulders
- Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
- Persistent tiredness or lack of energy
- Coughing up blood
- Hoarseness or wheezing
- Swelling of the face or neck
- Changes in the appearance of your fingers, i.e. they become more curved or the ends become larger (known as finger clubbing)
Survival rates for lung cancer depend on several factors, including how early the tumour is detected, whether or not it has spread beyond the lungs, and the quality of treatment. Although there are no UK-wide statistics available for different stages of lung cancer or individual treatments, the figures below relate to survival stages in England for people diagnosed between 2013 – 2017.
More than 55% will survive lung cancer for 5 years or more following diagnosis.
Approximately 35% will survive for 5 years or more following diagnosis.
Less than 15% will survive for 5 years or more following diagnosis.
Less than 5% will survive for 5 years or more following diagnosis.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and are concerned you might have lung cancer, contact your GP immediately for an appointment.