Myth: Only smokers get lung cancer. Reality: Anyone can

November 19, 2013 | by

Who's at risk for lung cancer? Anyone who has lungs, essentially.

Lung cancer screening saves lives. Now the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says more people should be getting it.

Lung Cancer Awareness Month: Tweetchat calls attention to the fact that, although smoking may be the number one risk factor for lung cancer, the disease does not occur only in smokers.

To mark Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Karen Reckamp, M.D.,  co-director of the Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program at City of Hope, took to Twitter to bust some lung cancer misconceptions.

The biggest misconception is that lung cancer only happens to smokers. Although smoking contributes to a high percentage of lung cancer cases – and smoking is certainly a habit to give up (or never pick up) – smokers alone are not the only ones at risk for the disease.

Changing the stigma associated with lung cancer emerged as a concern from other participants on the chat. Smoker or non-, no one deserves lung cancer, Reckamp said. Further, a growing number of lung cancer patients are never-smokers or very light smokers who quit many years ago. These patients’ tumors tend to be molecularly different from their smoking counterparts, and researchers are still trying to understand the environmental and other potential causes.

“It’s not uncommon for patients to tell people they have lung cancer, and to hear ‘I didn’t know you smoked,’” Reckamp said before tweeting: “No one asks a breast cancer patient if she ate a high fat diet or didn’t exercise.”

Increased advocacy for lung cancer patients is important for increasing research dollars allotted for the disease and changing the public’s perception. The best advocates are often survivors – something the lung cancer field can look forward to due to a number of factors and treatments on the horizon.

Screening: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has proposed screening with a low-dose CT scan for those 55 years old or older at high risk of the disease: current or former smokers who smoked 30 pack-years – that is, a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years. About 80 percent of lung cancers detected in screening programs are detected at Stage 1, when the cancer is very treatable. The cure rate for these patients can be as high as 85 percent.

Molecularly targeted therapies: These therapies target specific changes that cause cancer growth. Several such drugs already exist, and they’re making a big difference for some patients with advanced lung cancer. As more continues to be learned about lung cancer genomics, more targets and therapies will be identified, leading to more effective treatments.

Novel chemotherapies: A new class of drugs target cell division – thereby blocking cancers from growing.

Immune therapies: These therapies enhance a patient’s own immune system, and stimulate it to fight his or her lung cancer. These have potential to be used together with vaccines that inject the body with cancer proteins,  stimulating the immune system to build antibodies to fight them, Reckamp said. The new treatment approaches above are all being studied at City of Hope.

A transcript of the Twitter chat is available here.

Reckamp discusses new lung cancer therapies in the video below.

Learn about other lung cancer treatment options »