Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Non-Smoker Lung Cancer: A Growing Epidemic

When I was a kid, I was well aware of the dangers of cigarette smoking, and the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. However, when Dana Reeve was diagnosed and then died from lung cancer in 2006 at just 44 years of age, I became aware that non-smoker lung cancer also cast a dark shadow, that over the past decade has only grown larger.

Every 2 1/2 minutes someone is getting diagnosed with lung cancer. And people are getting lung cancer diagnoses at increasingly younger ages. People who are under 45 or 50 are more commonly diagnosed than in the past, and younger people tend to have more advanced lung cancer at the time of diagnosis than older patients. A great number of younger patients, like my dear college friend Art, are diagnosed with stage 4 disease.

Here are some statistics that Hildy Grossman, the founder of UpStage Lung Cancer, shared with me:

* an estimated 224,210 people were expected to be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, and 159,260 were expected to die

* 13.4% of these people are under age 50, and 1.2 - 6.2% are under age 40

* this translates into 30,000 people under age 50 being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014 and 21,000 young adults dying from the disease

* to put this in perspective, it was estimated that 40,000 people would die of breast cancer in 2014, and 20.8% of these women are under age 54--8300 women under ager 54 will die from breast cancer

* for younger adults, under age 45 - 50, lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer

* younger people tend to have more advanced lung cancer at the time of diagnosis than older patients; a greater number of younger patients are diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer

* younger people with lung cancer are more likely to have never been smokers than people who develop lung cancer later in life

* people diagnosed with lung cancer at a younger age are more likely to have family members who have suffered from the disease

* the stigma is high for younger people who are diagnosed with lung cancer--they are often blamed for their illness and often need even more support than people diagnosed at an older age, even though the stigma is high for anyone diagnosed with lung cancer

* the American Cancer Society estimates that there are 400,000 people in the US living with lung cancer, and about 8000 are under age 45

* nearly 80% of new lung cancer patients are former or never smokers

* lung cancer takes more lives than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined

* the five year survival rate for lung cancer has changed little in more than 40 years

These statistics make it clear that we need to be informed about the prevalence of lung cancer, including non-smoker lung cancer in younger adults under age 45 - 50, and that encouraging people to be screened for lung cancer is as important as being screened for breast cancer and colon cancer. Research is needed to help us understand WHY so many non-smokers are developing lung cancer, and what preventive measures we can take to protect ourselves from getting the disease.