10 Myths About Lung Cancer, Debunked

by Holly Pevzner Health Writer

Advancements in lung cancer research and treatment have never held more promise than they do right now, with more people living after diagnosis than ever before. That’s the good news! Even so, pervasive and dangerous myths still abound when it comes to this disease, which currently affects 541,000 Americans, according to the American Lung Association. Confusion about who gets it and how it’s detected and treated can overshadow so much hope—and even prevent early screenings that have been shown to significantly increase survival rates. Here are 10 lung cancer myths you simply can’t afford to believe any longer.

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Myth #1: I haven’t smoked since college. I’m sure I’m fine.

Better off? For sure. Risk-free? Nope. Your present-day risk for developing lung cancer has to do with how much you smoked back in the day; the number of years between now and your last puff; plus, your general health, genetics, and overall exposure to other harmful chemicals, says Jacob Sands, M.D., a thoracic medical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Still, “quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for your lung health,” he adds. Recent research reveals how heavy smokers (23 or more cigs per day) cut their risk by 39% within five years of quitting.

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Myth #2: Lung cancer is a health issue for smokers—not never-smokers, like me.

While smoking tobacco remains by far the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer—the habit is linked to at least 80% of lung cancer deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—it’s not the only cause. The American Cancer Society reports that one in five people who die of lung cancer each year never lit up. Instead, never-smokers may have been exposed to radon, secondhand smoke, asbestos, or other toxic chemicals. “And there are plenty of people without any exposures who develop the disease,” says Dr. Sands.

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Myth #3: Lung cancer surgery can actually cause the disease to spread.

“A very common misconception,” says Tawee Tanvetyanon, M.D., a medical oncologist and lung cancer specialist at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, FL. He suspects confusion occurs when 100% of the cancer cannot be removed during an initial surgery. “Also, there may be more cancer present at the time of surgery than was originally suspected.” This is one myth that definitely needs busting, he maintains. “I always acknowledge this fear to patients, but also let them know things could get worse a lot faster if they don’t have the surgery.”

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Myth #4: A prolonged and nasty cough is a surefire cancer clue.

Lung cancer is a stealth disease, often offering no clear symptoms, especially when contained to the lungs alone. Moreover, “lung cancer’s most common signs, like cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and weight loss, are also common indicators of other issues like emphysema and pneumonia,” says Elisabeth Dexter, M.D., attending thoracic surgeon and associate professor of oncology at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY. “Essentially, that means that there are no telltale signs.” She advises that you see your doctor ASAP if any of the above symptoms linger—or you’re hit with new, unexplained shortness of breath or persistent cough.

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Myth #5: Lung cancer is basically an older person’s disease.

There is some truth to this “if you consider 65 and over old,” says Dr. Dexter. Indeed, 70 is the average age of lung cancer diagnosis. However, this disease, particularly in non-smokers and women, can occur much earlier in life. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Cancer found that women between the ages of 30 and 49 are being diagnosed with lung cancer at higher rates than men—and differences in smoking habits between the sexes didn’t completely explain the pattern. Bottom line: If you experience symptoms (see Myth #4), no matter your age, see your healthcare provider.

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Myth #6: There’s no standard screening for lung cancer.

“Many primary care doctors don’t fully understand the benefits of lung cancer screening, so they’re not telling patients about it—not good, considering 70% of screen-detected lung cancers are early-stage, thus curable,” says Dr. Sands. Right now, just 2% of those who qualify for an annual low-dose CT scan lung cancer screening get them. You qualify if you’re 55 to 77; in relatively good health; smoked (at least) 20 cigarettes per day for 30 years, or two packs per day for 15 years; you smoke now; or have quit within the last 15 years.

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Myth #7: Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are my only treatment options.

Today, what’s known as targeted therapy is offering new hope for about a quarter of all people with adenocarcinoma, the most common form of non-small cell lung cancer. This approach literally hones in on and kills cancer cells that carry certain DNA mutations without damaging healthy cells, unlike chemo or radiation. “It’s been revolutionary in non-small cell lung cancer treatment,” says Dr. Sands. Anybody who’s been diagnosed with adenocarcinoma NSCLC needs to get tested to see if targeted therapy can work for them, he adds. “This is considered standard of care but, surprisingly, not everyone is getting it done—so ask.”

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Myth #8: My own immune system can’t be kickstarted to kill cancer cells.

Meanwhile, immunotherapy is a biological approach that uses medications to help activate your immune system into recognizing—and then obliterating—cancer cells. “Right now, immunotherapy is used routinely for all patients with stage 3 and 4 lung cancer,” says Dr. Tanvetyanon. “That translates to around 60 to 70 percent of all lung cancer patients.” Immunotherapy for lung cancer has only been widely available for about five years but it’s already made a great impact. “Immunotherapy has helped convert about 15 to 20 percent of stage 4 cancer patients into long-term survivors,” he says.

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Myth #9: Switching to e-cigarettes lowers my risk.

Truth is, e-cigarettes (a.k.a. vape pens or vaporizers) haven’t been around long enough to know for sure. What we do know is that they’re “filled with significant chemicals that can damage the lungs,” says Dr. Sands. According to the American Cancer Society, those damaging chemicals are cancer-causing, even if they are present in far lower amounts than in regular cigarettes. Still, as of January 2020, almost 3,000 people have been hospitalized for e-cigarette-related lung injury. It also remains uncertain whether e-cigarettes can increase smoking cessation success—likely why the FDA has yet to approve any e-cigarette products as quitting-smoking tools.

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Myth #10: Quitting smoking after a lung cancer diagnosis is pointless.

Stub out this false notion immediately. “Patients who quit smoking at the time of their lung cancer diagnosis have a better response to their cancer treatments, and they experience fewer complications and better survival rates after lung cancer surgery,” says Dr. Dexter. Plus, kicking the habit after any cancer diagnosis helps decrease the risk of secondary cancers even as it increases one's quality of life, according to a 2019 report in the journal Translational Lung Cancer Research. We know it’s not easy to quit—if you need support, visit the American Lung Association to learn how.

Holly Pevzner
Meet Our Writer
Holly Pevzner

Holly Pevzner specializes in creating health, nutrition, parenting and pregnancy content for a variety of publications, such as EatingWell, Family Circle, Parents, and Real Simple. Before becoming a full-time writer, Holly held senior staff positions at Prevention, Fitness, and Self magazines, covering medical health and psychology. She was also a contributing editor at Scholastic Parent & Child magazine. She resides with her family in Brooklyn, New York.