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Lung Cancer Rates: What’s Your Risk?
March 08, 2006
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D
With the recent death of Dana Reeve due to lung cancer, STATS took a look at lung cancer rates, along with the likelihood of survival. The news is not good.

The tragic death of Dana Reeve at 44 sounded an alarm: how did she die from lung cancer when she didn’t smoke? But being a nonsmoker does not eliminate your risk for lung or bronchial cancer. A full 25 percent (for women), and 20 percent (for men), of lung cancer cases are among people who have never smoked. Smoking is the single most important risk factor, but others include exposure to asbestos (especially in conjunction with smoking – the two together are worse than either separately), exposure to radon, and second-hand smoke. Other substances interact with smoking and make it worse – smokers tend to drink more, which in turn affects how well the body eliminates cancerous cells. There are many suspected culprits as well, from environmental pollution to cooking oil, to poverty and genetics. Just as a heart-healthy person can die of a heart attack, a nonsmoker can die of lung cancer.

Dismal survival rates

The bad news about lung cancer is its survival rates. Only about 13 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer will be alive in five years. About six out of ten people with lung cancer die in the first year after being diagnosed. Between seven and eight in ten die within 2 years. Contrast this to the survival rates of other cancers: about 80 percent of women with breast cancer, and 80 percent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer, are alive five years later. Overall, about 64 percent of people have survived cancer five years after diagnosis.

This high death rate accounts for why lung cancer wins the top-killer spot among cancers. There are more lung cancer deaths in the United Stats than there are breast, prostate, colon, or rectal cancer deaths combined. They account for almost a third of all cancer deaths – 31 percent for men, and 27 percent for women. On the other hand, breast cancer and prostate cancer for women and men, respectively, are the leaders in new cases. They account for about a third of all cases of cancer.

Dana Reeve was swimming against the current. With approximately 9 deaths by lung cancer expected this year for every 10 new cases, the odds were against her survival.

The chances of getting lung cancer

The chance of getting some form of invasive cancer in your lifetime is high: almost one in two women and more than one in three men in the United States will develop cancer (excluding certain skin cancers). Lung cancer is much less frequent, however. The chance of ever developing lung cancer is about one in 13 if you are female, and one in 18 if you are male.

These statistics obviously change if you are a smoker or not, and whether you have other risk factors. Though varying sources come up with different risk assessments, according to the Centers for Disease Control, women are twelve times more likely to get lung cancer if they smoke than if they don’t. Men are more than twenty times as likely. And the more you smoke, the worse it is.

But what is the risk? According to American Lung Association, about 1 in 8 smokers die from lung cancer. According to Harvard School of Public Health, the lifetime risk of a person who ever smoked developing lung cancer is approximately one in ten. But light smokers have less than half the risk as heavy smokers (heavy smoking being defined as more than 15 cigarettes per day), according to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In contrast, the rate of getting lung cancer (in your life) if you have never smoked is less than one percent.

The good news is this: according to one study, you can reduce your chance of getting any kind of tobacco-attributable cancer risk by 90 percent if you quit smoking before middle age. And those heavy smokers who significantly reduce their smoking (by 50 percent) reduce their risk of lung disease, by over 25 percent.