Lung cancer is responsible for more than 1 million deaths worldwide each year, with almost 170,000 of these deaths occurring in the United States. In the past, lung cancer was a disease most commonly seen in male smokers. Over the past decade, the trend has changed and lung cancer is responsible for more deaths in women each year than breast and uterine cancer combined.
Awhile back I was attending a conference where a nurse who was 40 years old, spoke about her experience after she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She noticed that when she spoke to friends and family and told them that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer their responses were often dismissive in nature, such as “but you smoke, right?”
Socially, there is less sympathy for a female patient diagnosed with lung cancer, than a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Many in our society will see a breast cancer patient as a victim of the disease or genetically predisposed to a condition she had no control over. Whereas a female diagnosed with lung cancer is perceived as inflicting the disease upon herself by choosing to abuse tobacco products.
Fifteen to 20 percent of female patients diagnosed with lung cancer are “never smokers.” These women have never abused tobacco products but are at risk for developing this disease through second-hand smoke or exposure to other toxins. Women who live with someone who smokes, were previously were employed in bars and restaurants where smoking was permitted or who currently work in a casino or other gambling establishment where smoking is still permitted are at an increased risk.
There is a perception that those who smoke should have known better and they somehow have caused their disease by not heeding the numerous anti-smoking campaign warnings. This thought process overlooks the pressure by the tobacco companies whose main focus and marketing efforts are targeted to a younger audience. This, coupled with the fact that those in this age group perceive themselves as invincible and do not take into consideration the long-term health risks associated with smoking, contributes to the large number who continue to start smoking. Many do not even consider the addictive properties of this activity. A nicotine addiction is more difficult to break than alcohol or narcotics.
Non-smokers are a small percentage of the overall number of diagnosed lung cancers. Those who have smoked in the past and stopped continue to have an increased risk of developing lung cancer. While the risk is not as great as those who continue to smoke, it is still greater than the lifelong non-smoker. Interestingly, lifelong non-smokers and those who have quit smoking account for more cancer diagnoses than those individuals who are currently smoking.
It is estimated that there are over 2 million survivors of breast cancer, who in turn become advocates for screening and assist in raising funds for research grants, while lung cancer survivors number only a few hundred thousand. Minimal amounts of the tobacco settlements to the states were actually spent on tobacco related diseases or establishment of screening protocols.
Lung cancer is a disease that is curable in 90 percent of patients when found at the earliest stage. Currently, only a small percentage of patients are being diagnosed with these early stage tumors. Recommendations for lung cancer screening are currently being considered. Active and former smokers should discuss with their primary health-care providers the risks and benefits of lung cancer screening.