Lung cancer: myths vs. facts

s a part of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we spend November recognizing all those whose lives have been impacted by this disease and educating ourselves about the risks, prevention, and treatment of this fatal disease.  

According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer is the deadliest cancer for men and women in the United States. In fact, more people die from lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. Despite being so prevalent, there are many misunderstandings about the disease. I talked to Dr. Eric Bernicker, thoracic oncologist at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, to debunk a few common lung cancer myths. 

Myth:  If you’ve smoked for years, the damage is done.

Fact: It’s never too late to quit smoking. It will take many years, but smokers can decrease their lung cancer risk to the normal level by quitting now. According to the American Cancer Society, within five years of quitting smoking, the lung cancer death rate for the average former pack-a-day smoker decreases by almost half.

One of the simplest, most effective things you can do to reduce lung cancer risk is to quit smoking Click To Tweet

Myth: Low-tar or light cigarettes are safer.

Fact: There is no such thing as a safe cigarette. Smoking low-tar or light cigarettes bring the same lung cancer risks as “normal” cigarettes.

Myth: Only smokers are at risk of getting lung cancer.

Fact: While the risk is higher for smokers, there is still a possibility that non-smokers will develop lung cancer. “At least ten percent of lung cancers arise in non-smokers through mechanisms that we have not yet figured out,” explained Dr. Bernicker. If you are a non-smoker and you develop a persistent and unexplained cough, he recommends seeing your primary care physician to rule out lung cancer.

Myth: The new e-cigarettes are risk-free and don’t cause cancer.

Fact: Because the risks associated with the inhalation of vaporized chemicals are unknown, there is not enough information to support the claim that e-cigarettes are risk free. Most oncologists do not feel that e-cigs are a safe alternative to smoking or should be used to help a smoker quit. 

Myth: Being diagnosed with lung cancer is a death sentence.

Fact: While it is true that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality, early detection is the key to treating lung cancer. “We hope that an expanding use of CT screening will allow the detection of lung cancer at an early stage and make an improvement in lung cancer mortality. They also hope that advances in understanding the molecular biology and immunology of cancer will lead to significant improvements in treating advanced lung disease,” said Dr. Bernicker.  

Get more information on lung cancer via the Houston Methodist Cancer Center and check out our Lung Cancer Awareness Pinterest board.

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10 things to know about lung cancer screenings

oughly 70 percent of lung cancer results from smoking; the other 30 percent has no identifiable cause. At Houston Methodist, the lung cancer screening program helps individuals who are at high risk for lung cancer receive a diagnosis and treatment plan at an early stage, when the disease is easier to treat and possibly cure.

I sat down with Dr. Reggie Munden, chair of the radiology department at Houston Methodist Hospital, and discussed 10 things people should know about the importance of lung cancer screenings.

1. Lung cancer screenings with computed tomography (CT) works and saves lives.

2. Screening benefits 55-74 year old current and former heavy smokers. For instance, one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years. 

3. A positive finding does not mean you have cancer, it means there are findings that could be cancerous and further testing will be needed.

4. The CT examination may detect significant diseases other than lung cancer.

5.  It is important to be screened at a facility with lung cancer screening experts.

70% of lung cancer results from smoking; the other 30% has no identifiable cause Click To Tweet

6. During the screening, the patient will undergo a low-dose, single-breath-hold CT scan of your lungs. The entire examination takes only a few seconds. Afterward, the radiologist reviews the images and issues a report of the findings. 

7. Findings on lung cancer CTs can range from no disease to findings very concerning for cancer. Based on previously published studies, more than 95 percent of the initially suspicious nodules identified within the lung are diagnosed as non-cancerous. 

8. The diagnosis of cancer is not made from the screening CT, but determined after further work up and usually requires a biopsy to confirm. 

9. The biggest determinants for lung cancer are age and long term-smoking. While some lung cancers are not related to cigarette smoking, there is no benefit to screening non-smokers for lung cancer. In fact, it is possible that screening people other than smokers could be more harmful than not screening. 

10. As of November 2014, lung cancer screening is covered by some insurance plans. Medicare announced plans to begin coverage for lung cancer screening for participants 65 years or older.

Our program provides a full service, multidisciplinary approach to lung cancer screening. This is important because screening CTs detect many significant diseases other than lung cancer and our center will be able to manage the whole patient. To get more info about lung cancer screenings at Houston Methodist, call 713.441.5864.

The trouble with e-cigarettes

Growing up I was a big fan of bubble gum cigarettes – basically a pink bubble gum stick coated with powdered sugar and wrapped in a faux cigarette wrapper. After blowing intensely into the gum, you’d usually produce a small puff of “smoke” before unwrapping the gum and chewing it. My fascination with these bubble gum cigarettes was more a result of my love of sweets than a latent desire to smoke.

Today’s youth are also being tempted to emulate this very dangerous habit by e-cigarette manufacturers. E-cigarettes are cigarette-shaped devices used to deliver nicotine to the user by way of vapors instead of smoke. They are often marketed as a smoking cecession device and as a healthier option to cigarettes. The first e-cigarettes were introduced in 2007.

“E-cigarettes are still fairly new and there have been a few concerns about them,” says Dr. Adelola Ashaye who does smoking cessation counseling. “I generally don’t recommend them as I think additional research is warranted.”

Sage advice, but advice that is being ignored by many young people as evidence is mounting that e-cigarettes often serve as a gateway to other tobacco products. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “E-cigarette experimentation and recent use doubled among U.S. middle and high school students during 2011–2012, resulting in an estimated 1.78 million students having ever used e-cigarettes as of 2012.”

According to the CDC report almost 10 percent of these students who reported using e-cigarettes had never smoked traditional cigarettes before. In other words, they were introduced to smoking by e-cigarettes.

ecigspic
Just because e-cigarettes aren’t traditional cigarettes doesn’t mean they’re automatically safe (Click the graphic to see a full version)

The American Heart Association (AHA) is taking no chances and just called for state and federal laws and regulations that would prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors as part of its recently released policy statement on e-cigarettes. “There is a concern among public health advocates that e-cigarettes could increase nicotine addiction and serve as a gateway for the use of tobacco products, particularly among youth” the AHA writes.

Youth in my day had to deal with cavities and being picked last for kickball if they chose to imitate the nasty habit of smoking by chewing too much bubble gum. However, today’s youth who choose to partake in this activity could be facing more severe consequences.

The CDC report says that increased use of e-cigarettes among youth “is a serious concern because the overall impact of e-cigarette use on public health remains uncertain. In youths, concerns include the potential negative impact of nicotine on adolescent brain development, as well as the risk for nicotine addiction and initiation of the use of conventional cigarettes or other tobacco products.”

Increasing numbers of teens are being introduced to smoking via e-cigarettes Click To Tweet

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has oversight over any tobacco product in the United States, e-cigarettes fall outside of its jurisdiction as they contain no actual tobacco. As a result tobacco companies that manufacture e-cigarettes “have been rapidly expanding using aggressive marketing messages similar to those used to promote cigarettes in the 1950s and 1960s” according to a recent scientific review on e-cigarettes in Circulation Magazine. “E-cigarette advertising is on television and radio in many countries that have long banned similar advertising for cigarettes and other tobacco products and may be indirectly promoting smoking conventional cigarettes.”

In other words, tobacco companies are coming for you and your kids with clever marketing campaigns and by offering e-cigarettes in flavors like cotton candy and yep – bubble gum.

“It may be some time before we fully know the risks of using e-cigarettes, but it’s not too early to sit down with your kids to discuss the potential harm in using e-cigarettes and cigarettes, too,” Dr. Ashaye added.

For more information and tips on quitting, look to  our Kicking The Habit Pinterest board!

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Reviewed by Dr. Adelola Ashaye