Exposed: Myths and Facts About Lung Cancer

Smoking is a leading risk factor for lung cancer, but there’s more to know about this common disease.

By Rachael Bieschke

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Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men and women (excluding skin cancer), and accounts for the most cancer deaths — more than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. Despite its prevalence, there are many myths regarding lung cancer risks and prevention, especially in regard to smoking.

Cigarette smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer, with up to 90 percent of lung cancer cases linked to the habit. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Emil Abramian, MD, Director of Interventional Pulmonology & Critical Care Physician, at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) Philadelphia, one of the most common myths is that cigarette smoking isn’t a direct cause of the disease, which is false. Other prevailing myths include:

Myth 1: Cigars Aren’t Bad Because You Don’t Inhale

Cigar smoke contains many of the same cancer-causing chemicals as cigarette smoke, but often in higher concentrations. Large cigars can take one to two hours to smoke, resulting in increased exposure to toxins.

Even if you don’t inhale, your mouth, throat and lips are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals, as is your esophagus when you swallow saliva that contains the chemicals. While cigar smokers typically have lower rates of lung cancer compared to cigarette smokers, the risk is elevated compared to nonsmokers.

Myth 2: Secondhand Smoke Isn’t That Bad

Secondhand smoke is a risk factor for lung cancer because it exposes you to the same cancer-causing chemicals as active smoking. Nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work have a 20 to 30 percent increased risk of lung cancer compared to those without secondhand smoke exposure.

The more secondhand smoke exposure you receive, the greater your lung cancer risk becomes, but, as noted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Even brief secondhand smoke exposure can damage cells in ways that set the cancer process in motion.”

Myth 3: Smoking Just a Few Cigarettes a Day Isn’t Harmful

The more you smoke, the greater your lung cancer risk, but even a few cigarettes a day can be harmful. Dr. Abramian says people often assume that because they don’t smoke “that much” or “most of their cigarettes burn out,” they’re not at an increased risk. In reality, smoking even one to four cigarettes a day is linked to a greater risk of dying from lung cancer in women.

Myth 4: Light Cigarettes Are Less Risky

“Light,” “low tar,” or “mild” cigarettes were once marketed as having different tobacco blends, filters and other features that would expose smokers to less tar. However, they pose the same risks as regular cigarettes. They are in no way a “safer” cigarette, which is why the use of such terms is no longer allowed on cigarette packaging.

The idea that “light” cigarettes are less risky in terms of lung cancer risk “is completely false,” Dr. Abramian says, adding, “they are still directly linked to causing cancer. Light or low-tar cigarettes have no difference in increasing the risk of cancer. It’s a simple marketing strategy.”

Myth 5: Smoking Is the Only Risk Factor for Lung Cancer

Although smoking is the leading risk factor, it’s not the only one. Other factors linked to lung cancer risk include:

  • Asbestos
  • Air pollution, including diesel exhaust
  • Genetic factors, such as having a first-degree relative with lung cancer
  • Radon gas in the home
  • Radiation
  • Arsenic in drinking water
  • Frequent consumption of cured meats

Lung Cancer Facts: How Can It Be Prevented?

The top way to prevent lung cancer, Dr. Abramian explains, is to avoid smoking everything, which includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, e-cigarettes and marijuana. He also advises taking steps to avoid being exposed to asbestos and not exposing young children to secondhand smoke. He recommends completely eliminating smoke around children, even smoking outside or on the porch.

Having your home tested for radon, and mitigated if necessary, is another important step, as is limiting your exposure to other cancer-causing chemicals, such as air pollution, as much as possible.

Finally, as with many types of cancer, eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables has also been linked to a lower lung cancer risk, among both smokers and nonsmokers. However, if you’re a current smoker, quitting smoking is your most powerful strategy for preventing lung cancer and getting a lung screening low dose CT of the chest is highly recommended.