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Non-smokers diagnosed more with lung cancer

Staff Report • Updated Mar 21, 2018 at 7:00 PM

NASHVILLE – The majority of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients are not smoking when they are diagnosed.  

In fact, up to 20 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked.  More than 155,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer, and more than 4,500 of those are Tennesseans, which is more than breast, prostate and colorectal combined, both nationally and on the state level.

Tennessee has the sixth-highest incidence rate of lung cancer nationally, and incidence rates for white and black men are between 50-100 percent higher than the national rate.

 “If you have lungs, you can be diagnosed with lung cancer,” said Kim Parham, a registered nurse and senior manager of patient navigation and clinical program development with the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. “Every two and a half minutes, someone in the United States is told that he or she has lung cancer, but only 18 percent are diagnosed at the earliest stage when it is most treatable.”

Lung cancer kills almost twice as many women as breast cancer and more than three times as many men as prostate cancer. 

“When people think of lung cancer, they think of smoking, which is certainly the leading cause, but there are other risk factors that are important to be aware of,” said Jennifer Murray, president of the Tennessee Cancer Consortium. 

In addition to not using tobacco products and eliminating exposure to second hand smoke, it is also important to:

• have your home tested for radon, which is found in high levels in many parts of Tennessee.

• limit any exposure to chemicals at home or in the workplace without proper protective safety equipment.

• limit air pollution, especially on days when advisories are posted.

• keep moving, and find an exercise you enjoy.

• eat healthy, including a variety of fruits and vegetables.

• have regular checkups and preventative screenings.

• have positive social interactions, which is good for overall well-being.

Lung cancer has one of the poorest survival rates for any of the major cancers because most are diagnosed only when they become symptomatic or show signs of a disease. Many of the signs for cancer are also the signs for other diseases, so communicating with your healthcare provider is key. 

Potential signs are a cough that does not go away, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, trouble breathing, wheezing, coughing up blood, hoarseness, loss of appetite, weight loss for no known reason, feeling tired, trouble swallowing, swelling of the face and/or veins in the neck and infection in your lungs that keep coming back.

For anyone who does smoke or has quit within the last 15 years, they are encouraged to talk to a health care provider about qualifying for a low-dose computed tomography lung screening.  Many hospitals and imaging centers provide this test within Tennessee. 

Insurance sometimes covers the cost of the screening, and Medicare will cover screenings as long as specific criteria are met and a health care provider order is obtained. The basic criteria for Medicare coverage is 55 to 77 years old; a smoking history of one pack per day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years; a current smoker or someone who has quit within the past 15 years.

There are also resources for those who want to quit smoking or using tobacco products, including wellness programs in the work place, local public health departments and local health care institutions. Another good resource is the Tennessee Quit Line at tnquitline.org or the Quit for Life program at 800-QUIT-NOW to speak with a counselor who can help create a plan to quit tobacco use.

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