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Lung Cancer

What's the Problem?

More deaths each year can be attributed to lung cancer than to any other type of cancer. In 2005, it is estimated that more than 172,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer, and nearly 164,000 people will die from the disease. Lung cancer accounts for more deaths each year than those from breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers combined.

Symptoms of lung cancer vary considerably among different people. Some people don't have any symptoms while others may experience shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing that doesn't go away, coughing up blood, chest pain, fever, and weight loss.

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Who's at Risk?

Anyone can potentially develop lung cancer but some people are at particularly high risk because of their lifestyle choices, environmental exposures and family history. Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer—almost 90% of lung cancers are due to cigarette smoking. Current smokers or those who have smoked in the past are 10 to 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer. Secondhand smoke also can cause lung cancer. Every year, approximately 38,000 non-smokers die as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Lung cancer risk is also increased by exposure to certain chemicals and substances found in the home or at work. Radon gas, a chemical that is odorless and colorless and found in rocks and dirt, can become trapped in homes or office buildings and is known to cause cancer. Other substances that are known to increase one's risk for developing lung cancer are asbestos, arsenic and some forms of chromium and silica.

In addition, one's family history and genetics also may play a role in the development of disease. Having parents or siblings who have had lung cancer increases one's risk of getting the disease.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes, most cases of lung cancer can be prevented. Quitting smoking can dramatically reduce a person's risk of developing the disease. Quitting has immediate and long-term benefits, such as reducing the risk of diseases associated with smoking and improving overall health. Avoiding secondhand smoke also can help prevent lung cancer.

In addition, limiting exposure to chemicals such as radon and other known carcinogens also may help reduce the risk of developing the disease. All homes should be tested for radon—radon detectors can be purchased at local hardware stores. Smokers living in a home with elevated levels of radon are at much higher risk for lung cancer. Health and safety guidelines in the workplace also can help workers avoid cancer-causing agents. Additionally, earlier diagnosis through screening, more effective treatment, preventing secondary disease and recurrence, can increase chances of survival and even prevention of the disease.

The Bottom Line

  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women in the U.S. But, it is also highly preventable. Not smoking or quitting smoking can be the easiest way to reduce one's risk.
  • There is no safe tobacco product. The use of any tobacco product can cause cancer and other adverse health effects. This includes all forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes and spit tobacco; mentholated, "low-tar," "naturally grown" or "additive free."
  • Living with and surviving a serious disease, such as lung cancer, is challenging. Apart from having to cope with the physical and medical challenges, people with cancer face many worries, feelings, and concerns that can make life difficult. They may find they need help coping with the emotional as well as the physical aspects of their disease.

Case Example

Ann, a mother of two children and smoker of fifteen years, notices that she has been coughing and wheezing excessively so she goes to see her physician. Her physician diagnoses her with lung cancer. Ann is not surprised as she has understood the risks of smoking for a long time. She begins treatment immediately. Within a year of her diagnosis, Ann's cancer progresses and spreads to her lymph nodes and spine. After surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and an arsenal of drugs, her disease goes into remission. Even though Ann survives the disease, she continues to face a number of emotional, psychological and economic challenges. She decides to volunteer with a smoking cessation group and through this experience, she is able to move on with her life with a newfound sense of hope.

  • Page last reviewed: February 15, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 15, 2011
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