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Is lung cancer really a smoker’s disease?

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Debunking lung cancer myths(Photo: Freepik)
Written by Kalay Nair

Imagine living a healthy lifestyle. Eating well, exercising and never smoking, but hearing your doctor tell you that you have lung cancer. This is  *Andy Long’s experience. In 2017, he started feeling off-balance, as though he was drunk. The diagnosis came back as a brain tumour caused by lung cancer. Andy was in shock.

That was the first time I learned about genetic mutations causing lung cancer and that the percentage of lung cancer patients who didn’t smoke was so high. I was so taken aback as I am a healthy person. I eat well, exercise, and have never smoked in my life. There wasn’t anything I could do other than deal with it. I had to get treatment and focus on my recovery. I had to be proactive and support my own treatment plan. 

People still largely believe that lung cancer is a smoker’s disease.  While tobacco smoking is the main risk factor, there are other risks, including environmental ones. Common causes include exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution, diesel engine exhaust, welding fumes, and asbestos.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, aimed at raising awareness about the disease. In South Africa, lung cancer is among the top 3 cancers in men and in women. And it ranks as the number one cause of cancer deaths in the country.  In 2020 there were 2.21 million new lung cancer cases and almost 2 million deaths globally. 

Several myths associated with this type of cancer increase the emotional and psychological burden on patients. When diagnosed early, however, a patient is 13 times more likely to live for five years or longer, said Dr Kgothatso Motumi, Head: of Market Access and Public Policy for Roche Pharmaceuticals South Africa, shares insight into this all-too-common killer. 

Lung cancer and the cost of shame 

“One of the biggest challenges patients face is the negative stigma associated with the disease. Patients frequently feel shame when diagnosed with this ‘smokers’ disease’ and are less likely to seek support and treatment. These common feelings can also cause additional stress and health problems, said Motumi. 

She said these patients feel isolated or blame themselves. This prevents them from speaking openly about their illness.  Even in cases where lifestyle did not cause the illness, society has preconceptions about lung cancer, which leave patients feeling judged.

Support and empathy are vital parts of the patient journey and tools that contribute to survival. But the myths and misconceptions surrounding lung cancer have existed for many years and won’t disappear overnight. This makes it all the more important to raise awareness, debunk stigmas and give the disease a human face. Lung cancer does not need to be a death sentence.

It does not have to be a death sentence

Andy shared he had to put aside his shock and confusion to focus on his treatment, which was complicated by a tumour pressing down on his spinal column.

“So, the focus shifted to long-term treatment and improving my prognosis. With treatment, the tumour was reduced to the point where I was fit and healthy enough to return to work.”

He said it is important for people to realise that cancer is not necessarily a death sentence.

There are more and more options out there – new generations of drugs. The aim is to make cancer a chronic illness, like diabetes – one that can be treated so that people can continue to live a full life with cancer in the background. My message of hope to others is to do what you can. Get out and about, strengthen yourself, and take your doctor’s advice.” 

Common misconceptions and myths about lung cancer

Myth: Only smokers get lung cancer 

Up to 20 percent of deaths caused by lung cancer occur in people who have never smoked or used any other form of tobacco. Other causes of lung cancer include exposure to radon gas, second-hand smoke, air pollution, and asbestos or diesel exhaust fumes. Non-smokers may also have gene mutations that make them more likely to develop lung cancer.

Myth: If you get lung cancer in older age, there is no use in treating it 

Although comorbidities – which are more likely in older patients – may affect treatment, age alone should not decide whether a treatment is appropriate. The prognosis is still significantly better in older patients who receive chemotherapy, evasive surgery and targeted therapies. 

Myth: Lung cancer is a death sentence 

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. However, there has been a decline of roughly 2.2 percent in the death toll over the last 10 years. The long-term prognosis is unique to each patient, and statistics don’t consider all the variables. It cannot always be predicted exactly how an individual will be affected. – Health-e News

About the author

Kalay Nair

Kalay has worked in several news mediums including wire journalism and broadcast news. She was a parliamentary reporter at the SA Press Association before a stint at the Gulf News in Dubai. She joined the prime-time news team at eTV when she returned to South Africa. She was also part of the eNCA launch team, where she managed a national television newsroom, oversaw a team of reporters and planned major news events. She has a diploma in journalism from DUT, a certificate in financial journalism from Rhodes University; was a CNN fellow, and completed the WAN IFRA Media Management Online Training programme in 2020.

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