Coughing, wheezing, and fatigue are common symptoms of viruses from the common cold to COVID-19. But for some—especially smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke—these seemingly harmless symptoms may signify something far worse: lung cancer.
Although lung cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosis, it’s the leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women. Lung cancer makes up about 25% of all cancer deaths—more people die each year of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. The American Cancer Society estimates 236,740 new cases of lung cancer and 130,000 deaths by the end of this year.3
Lung cancer has two major types: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer.
Non-small cell lung cancer makes up most lung cancer cases in the US. There are three common types:
- adenocarcinomas that appear in the lung’s outer area;
- squamous cell carcinoma is found primarily in the center of the lung adjacent to an air tube;
- and large cell carcinoma, which can appear anywhere in the lung.
Non-small cell lung cancer types grow and spread relatively slowly. Treatment options include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy—an option that causes less harm to normal cells.2
Small cell lung cancer makes up about 15% of lung cancer cases. It multiplies and spreads quickly but responds well to treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and medication.1
Symptoms of lung cancer include:
- A new cough that doesn’t go away
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Losing weight
- Bone pain
5 Risk Factors for Lung Cancer
One of the most significant factors in the high mortality rate for lung cancer is the difficulty in diagnosing the disease at an early stage. Many symptoms—including chronic coughing or coughing with blood, wheezing, shortness of breath, and weight loss with no known cause—mimic smoking-related symptoms. Most people who have lung cancer don’t experience symptoms until the cancer is advanced.4
Smoking is the most significant risk factor for lung cancer, contributing to up to 90% of lung cancer deaths, but it isn’t the only factor. Here are four additional risk factors.
- Secondhand smoke exposure—Secondhand smoke sends hundreds of toxic chemicals—including formaldehyde, arsenic, and hydrogen cyanide—into the breathing spaces of those in the vicinity of the smoker. With no risk-free level of exposure, even short-term exposure can increase lung cancer risk and cause other health problems: stroke, heart attacks, and chronic asthma. Secondhand smoke causes more than 41,000 deaths annually and is responsible for more than 150,000 respiratory tract infections and 200,00 asthma attacks among children each year.
- Radon exposure—Radon, a tasteless, colorless, and odorless gas, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer. Exposure to this naturally occurring gas intensifies the effects of smoking, leading to a greater risk of developing lung cancer.
- Occupational hazards—Occupational exposure to carcinogens—including asbestos, uranium, and coke—accounts for about 12% of cases. Individuals exposed to asbestos are at risk whether or not they are smokers, but the risk factor increases to 50% for smokers who also work near asbestos.
- Environmental factors—Although a much smaller risk than others on the list, outdoor air pollution accounts for 1 to 2% of lung cancer cases. Still, the bigger concern is the combination of air pollution and occupational hazards or smoking.
- Age—Lung cancer typically affects older Americans. About 86% of lung cancer patients were 60 years or older.
Screening early and often, especially if you have risk factors for developing lung cancer, can save your life. More than 8 million Americans are considered high-risk for lung cancer and are eligible for annual CT scan screenings. If half of these individuals took advantage of screenings, more than 12,000 lung cancer deaths could have been prevented.5
The American Cancer Society’s lung cancer screening guidelines provide a roadmap for individuals with one or more risk factors.
Lung Cancer Resources
If you are living with lung cancer, are at risk of developing the disease, or have a loved one who has been affected by lung cancer, check out these lung cancer resources:
- Lung Cancer Screening – Cancer.gov
- Feelings and Cancer: Coping with a cancer diagnosis – National Cancer Institute
- I Want to Quit: Developing a plan to stop smoking – Smokefree.gov
- Freedom from Smoking ® Program – American Lung Association
- What can I do to reduce my lung cancer risk? — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Symptoms and Risks of COPD
Lung cancer isn’t the only lung condition that can take your breath away. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a group of lung diseases with similar symptoms to lung cancer. Stay tuned this month for more information on COPD and how simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in treating the disease.
Receiving a COPD and lung cancer diagnosis can be disheartening, but more lives can be saved with awareness of risk factors, increased screening, and prevention. Explore more lung health resources on your member portal.