First the GOOD NEWS: The cancer death rate in the U.S. dropped 2.2% from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop ever recorded, according to the latest report from the American Cancer Society, continuing a longstanding decline that began a quarter-century ago. This decline was fueled in no small part by recent advances which have lowered death rates in lung and skin cancer patients.
This 26-year decline in our overall cancer mortality rate, a 29 percent drop, translates to roughly 2.9 million fewer deaths than there would have been had the rates remained the same. In contrast, less impressive results remain for other major causes of death, such as heart disease, whose mortality rate has slowed; stroke and other cerebrovascular disease, whose rate has stabilized; and accidents, Alzheimer’s disease and suicides, rates which continue to increase.
Unfortunately lung cancer statistics don’t hold up as well among American women. Internationally, screening programs and more effective treatments have helped lower breast cancer death rates. Meanwhile, the number of deaths from lung cancer has already sped past those from breast cancer in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and other higher-income countries. In the U.S. in 2015, more than 70,000 women died from lung cancer and about 41,000 women died from breast cancer.
In the U.S., smoking rates peaked in women after they did in men. That is why the U.S. is one of the countries where lung cancer rates have stabilized or decreased in men but they continue to rise in women. Men are still far more likely to smoke than women, and this will likely hold true in the future. Research is now underway to investigate whether smoking cessation programs are more effective than lung cancer screening in reducing lung cancer deaths in women.
Please let me share a few interesting facts I have learned about lung cancer since discovering I have nodules in my own lungs. Nodules can be seen as a precursor to cancer. In my case they were found by getting a simple chest X-ray. Please get your lungs checked today! But when I recently asked my pulmonologist how common nodules are, she informed me that they are far more common than previously expected. How do we know this? So many more people have received X-rays and cat scans of their lungs in the past decade or so.
I also learned that, like me, as many as 20% of people who die from lung cancer in the United States every year have never smoked or used any other form of tobacco. In fact, if lung cancer in non-smokers had its own separate category, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCL) is the most common type of lung cancer, yet it’s difficult to detect early on because early-stage lung cancer often has no symptoms and is not detected with a chest X-ray. Positron emission tomography (PET) and CT scans can be more helpful in diagnosing lung cancer.
Researchers continue to make progress in understanding what can cause lung cancer in people who have never used tobacco. A few other causes of lung cancer include:
- Radon gas. The leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is exposure to radon gas, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It accounts for about 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. About 2,900 of these deaths happen among people who never smoked. Radon occurs naturally outdoors in harmless amounts, but sometimes becomes concentrated in homes built on soil with natural uranium deposits. Studies have found that the risk of lung cancer is higher in people who have lived for many years in a radon-contaminated house. Because radon gas can’t be seen or smelled, the only way to know whether it’s a problem in your home is to test for it. A Citizen’s Guide to Radon explains how to test your home for radon easily and inexpensively, as well as what to do if your levels are too high.
- Secondhand smoke. Each year, about 7,000 adults die of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand smoke. Laws that ban smoking in public places have helped to reduce this danger. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action NetworkSM (ACS CAN) – the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society – is working to expand and strengthen these laws to further protect both people who smoke and those who don’t from the dangers of secondhand smoke.
- Cancer-causing agents at work. Some people are exposed to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) like arsenic, asbestos and diesel exhaust at their workplace. Work-related exposure to such cancer-causing materials has decreased as the government and industry have taken steps to help protect workers. Still, if you work around these agents, be careful to limit your exposure whenever possible.
- Air pollution. Researchers have known for a long time that both indoor and outdoor air pollution can contribute to lung cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies outdoor air pollution as a carcinogen. However, it’s believed the risk of lung cancer associated with air pollution is lower in the US than in many other countries because of policies that have helped to lower the levels of exposure.
- Gene mutations. Researchers are learning more about what causes cells to become cancerous, and how lung cancer cells differ between people who have never smoked and those who smoke. Understanding how gene changes cause lung cancer cells to grow has helped researchers develop targeted therapies, drugs that specifically attack cells with these mutations.
Do not assume that because you never smoked, you cannot have nodules or lung cancer. Get your lungs checked regularly as you age.