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This Cancer Kills More People than Breast, Prostate and Colon Cancer Combined

Lung cancer leading cancer death

While breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, a new survey from the American Lung Association (ALA) found that less than a quarter of women are aware that lung cancer has a higher mortality rate than breast cancer.

One thousand adult women in the United States were given a list of cancers and asked to pick the top killer among women. Fifty-one percent chose breast cancer, while only 22 percent chose lung cancer.

But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lung cancer kills about 38 out of every 100,000 American women each year. It is the leading cause of death among white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native women, and second among Hispanic women. Breast cancer kills 22 women per 100,000 each year.

Alana Burns, vice president of the ALA’s Signature Cause Campaign, said the poor survival rate for female lung cancer sufferers is due to the fact that it simply isn’t on their radar.

"With breast cancer, there are so many survivors out there telling their stories and advocating," Burns said. "But more than half of women diagnosed with lung cancer are gone within a year. There is no legion of survivors talking about their experiences."

Dr. Subhakar Mutyala, associate director of the Scott & White Cancer Institute in Temple, Texas, said, “It’s pretty clear that breast cancer gets more press.” He also said that, unless you’re a smoker, your doctor most likely will not bring up lung cancer during a visit.

However, 68 percent of lifelong smokers responded that they were not “not concerned” about lung cancer. Half of the women said they weren’t concerned since they had never smoked. But non-smokers are just as at risk as those who do smoke.

According to Dr. Mutyala, only about 20 percent of lung cancers are operable when a person is diagnosed, since the diagnosis often comes at a late stage. The ALA is asking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to boost its funding for lung cancer research from $213 million to $400 million by 2025. The ALA also recently launched the Lung Force website to raise awareness. Funding for breast cancer research tops $650 million per year, according to NIH estimates.

“That's despite the fact that lung cancer kills more people than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined," Mutyala said.

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Risk Factors of Lung Cancer

Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor of lung cancer, causing about 90 percent of lung cancers. According to the CDC, people who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from it than people who do not smoke.

Secondhand smoke also causes lung cancer, and in the United States, two out of five adults who do not smoke – and half of children – are exposed to secondhand smoke. About 3,000 people who have never smoked die from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke each year.

Radon, a naturally occurring gas that comes from rocks and dirt, is the second leading cause of lung cancer. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon causes about 20,000 cases of lung cancer each year. The gas can get trapped in homes and buildings, with nearly one in 15 homes in the U.S. thought to have high radon levels.

Family history also plays a role in the risk of lung cancer. If your parents, siblings, or children, you will have a higher risk. However, this could also be due to exposure to secondhand smoke or radon and other carcinogens.

Types of Lung Cancers

There are three main types of lung cancer: non-small cell, small cell, and lung carcinoid tumor.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common, affecting about 85 percent of sufferers. Subtypes of non-small lung cancer include squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma

Small cell affects about 10 to 15 percent and tends to spread quickly, while lung carcinoid tumors makes up less than 5 percent of lung cancer cases and grow slowly and rarely spread.

Symptoms of Lung Cancer

The symptoms of lung cancer vary. Some may have symptoms that are related to lungs, while those whose cancer has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body may have symptoms specific to that body part. Sometimes symptoms do not appear until the cancer has advanced.

Commons symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing that doesn’t go away or gets worse
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired all of the time

These symptoms are not exclusive to lung cancer, so it is important to see a doctor to determine the cause.

How to Reduce Risk of Lung Cancer

If you smoke, the best way to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer is to quit immediately. People who quit smoking have a lower risk of getting lung cancer than those who continue to smoke. You can also limit your exposure to secondhand smoke and have your home tested for radon.