Lung Cancer Awareness: Let’s Talk Risk Factors, Survivorship, and Support
In the United States, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. A cancer diagnosis can trigger feelings of fear, sadness, worry, and uncertainty. It is important to remember that you are not alone.
Tammy herself had many questions and concerns when she was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). She found support and connection on MyLifeLine.org, our free digital support community for people impacted by cancer. “I've learned that all the questions and doubts I have since I was diagnosed with NSCLC aren't only in my mind, but [in the minds of] everyone who has been told they have cancer,” Tammy shares.
MyLifeLine members can create a private support website to keep their friends and family updated about their cancer journey. They also have access to discussion boards about specific topics, including living with lung cancer. Members can exchange stories and ideas and share their questions and concerns. “I value knowing I'm not alone in this journey and all I have to do is go online and share what I’m feeling,” notes Tammy.
Read on for key things to know about lung cancer, including resources and support to help you navigate a lung cancer diagnosis.
"I ask a lot of questions because I feel I need to learn about what's going on inside me."
— Tammy, non-small cell lung cancer survivor
Types of Lung Cancer
There are 2 main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). They differ in the look and biology of the cancer cells. They also differ in how they spread and respond to treatment.
NSCLC is the most common form of lung cancer. In the United States, 85% of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancers. There are 3 major types of NSCLC:
- Adenocarcinoma usually starts in cells that make mucus near the outer edges of the lungs. It may occur in people with a history of smoking, but it is most often found in those who never smoked.
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma usually starts in the thin, flat cells in the lung’s airways. It is strongly associated with smoking.
- Large Cell Carcinoma can start in any part of the lung. It is often the diagnosis when other types of lung cancer have been ruled out.
SCLC is defined by the smaller size of the cancer cells. It is sometimes called oat cell cancer. Most people who develop SCLC are current or former smokers. SCLC tends to grow and spread to the lymph nodes and other organs faster than NSCLC. Small cell lung cancer accounts for about 15% of lung cancer cases in the United States.
Malignant mesothelioma is a rare, fast-growing cancer. While mesothelioma often starts in the lungs, it is not a type of lung cancer.
Risk Factors for Lung Cancer
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing a disease. Research has found these risk factors for lung cancer:
- History of smoking: Smoking harms the lungs and may lead to cancer. People who smoke more cigarettes or smoke for more years have a higher risk. Smokers and former smokers with high lifetime exposure may be eligible for lung cancer screening in the form of a low-dose CT scan. Talk with your doctor about the guidelines and process for screening.
- Exposure to secondhand smoke: People who have had regular exposure to secondhand smoke are at high risk. Exposure can come from living or working in a place where people smoke.
- Age: The risk of developing cancer increases as you get older. Most people are over 65 when they are diagnosed with lung cancer.
- Environment: Exposure to high levels of certain natural gases and chemicals like radon, uranium, arsenic, bischloromethyl ether, asbestos, chromium, nickel, soot, and tar can cause lung cancer.
- Personal history: If you had lung cancer before, you have a greater risk of having it again. Radiation treatment to the chest also can increase your risk.
- Family history: Your risk may be higher if your parents, siblings, or children have had lung cancer. Talk with your doctor about your family’s history of cancer and how it might affect your risk.
Signs & Symptoms of Lung Cancer
Common signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:
- Chest pain
- Cough that worsens or does not go away
- Coughing up blood or mucus
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weight loss
If you experience these symptoms, discuss them with your healthcare provider.
Lung Cancer Screening
Lung cancer screening in the form of a low-dose CT scan is recommended for people at high risk. It has been shown to reduce deaths from lung cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for:
- People ages 50-80 who have a history of smoking more than 20 pack years (for example, one pack per day for 20 years or two packs per day for 10 years). People who currently smoke and those who have quit smoking within the last 15 years may be eligible.
- People who have had lung cancer. If you had lung cancer once, you have a greater chance of getting a second lung cancer. It is a good idea to have yearly scans after you have completed treatment.
If you think you may be at risk for lung cancer, find a screening program that follows these guidelines and uses low-dose CT scans. Talk to your doctor if you think you have an increased risk for lung cancer and are not eligible for screening under the current guidelines.
Lung Cancer Resources & Support
Our recent research reveals the impact lung cancer can have on the overall distress of patients and survivors. For example, in our Cancer Experience Registry survey, 69% of participants who have been diagnosed with lung cancer reported moderate to very serious concern about their cancer progressing or coming back. Additionally, prior to making a treatment decision, 57% were not knowledgeable about treatment options, and 77% were not aware of the financial impact of their cancer treatment.
If you are living with lung cancer or are a caregiver to someone with lung cancer, these resources can help ease the burden of your journey.
- Find more information about lung cancer, including diagnosis and staging, biomarker testing, treatment options, and coping strategies.
- Connect with our Cancer Support Helpline by phone or online. Our experienced Helpline staff are here to offer free navigation for cancer patients or their loved ones.
- Join our caring and supportive community — find a location near you. We have 190 locations worldwide, including 52 licensed affiliates and healthcare partnerships.
- Share your experience to help influence healthcare policy, enhance cancer care, and improve supportive services for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers — take our Cancer Experience Registry survey.
“Just hang in there. We are not alone. If you start talking about it, people will respond mostly with kindness and love.”
— Tammy, non-small cell lung cancer survivor
Editor's Note: This blog was originally published in November 2021 and has been updated.