Myths and Misconceptions about Lung Cancer

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2020.

There are many common misconceptions and myths about lung cancer. It is important to know the facts and help spread greater awareness of lung cancer. Here are some common lung cancer myths.

Myth: Only smokers get lung cancer

Yes, most cases of lung cancer are linked to smoking tobacco. However, up to 20 percent of deaths caused by lung cancer occur in people who have never smoked or used any other form of tobacco. People who get lung cancer but have not smoked may have been exposed to the other causes of lung cancer. These include exposure to radon gas, secondhand smoke, air pollution, asbestos, or diesel exhaust. A small number of people who get lung cancer have not smoked or been exposed to other known causes of lung cancer.1

Non-smokers with lung cancer tend to be younger and are rarely diagnosed with small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Non-smokers may have gene changes that make them more likely to develop lung cancer.1

Myth: Breast cancer kills more women than lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women in the U.S. However, breast cancer occurs more often in women than lung cancer. In fact, more women die from lung cancer than from breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers combined.2-3

Myth: Lung cancer only happens in older adults

Although lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed among people 55-84 years of age, it can occur at younger ages.5

Myth: If you get lung cancer in older age, there is no use in treating it

Older people are more likely to have other conditions (comorbidities), such as heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which may impact how well they respond to treatment. However, several studies have shown that age alone should not decide whether a treatment is appropriate, as older patients experience benefits, including increased survival, with treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, and targeted therapies.6-8

Myth: Surgery for lung cancer causes it to spread

Lung cancer spreads through the bloodstream and the lymphatic system. This happens cells from the original tumor break off and travel through the vessels to other places in the body. Surgery does not increase the chances that the cancer will spread, or metastasize. Surgery is used in some patients to remove the malignant (cancerous) tumor from the lung.9

Myth: Lung cancer is a death sentence

Although lung cancer causes the most cancer-related deaths in the United States, the death rates have been falling over time, falling on average 2.2 percent for the last 10 years.5

The prognosis, or forecast of the disease, is unique to every person with lung cancer. When looking at statistics, researchers look at large numbers of people. These numbers can be distressing, since lung cancer survival rate is lower than some other types of cancer. However, the statistics do not necessarily predict what will happen to an individual.5

Myth: Non-smokers don’t have to worry about lung cancer

As many as 20 percent of deaths caused by lung cancer occur in people who do not smoke or use any other form of tobacco. Non-smokers are more likely to develop lung cancer if they are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work. In addition, there are several other factors that can increase the risk of developing lung cancer among non-smokers, including exposure to radon gas, air pollution, workplace carcinogens (substances that can increase the risk of developing cancer), and inherited genetic mutations1,11

Myth: Lung cancer can’t be treated

Lung cancer can be treated with a number of different options available. The treatment for lung cancer is based on the stage of the disease and the category. Depending on the category and the stage of lung cancer, treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted treatments, and/or immunotherapy.12

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