November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. In the U.S., lung cancer kills more people than breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer combined. Although lung cancer is common, many people don’t know anything about it or are too afraid to learn. It is important to understand the disease and its risk factors. Whether you have been diagnosed or just want to learn more, being well informed can help you feel more in control of your health and help to educate others.

Understanding Lung Cancer

Anyone can get lung cancer. Lung cancer is very serious and occurs when cells in the lungs change. They grow uncontrollably and cluster together to form a tumor. There are two main types of lung cancer, small cell and non-small cell. While much progress has been made, lung cancer is still the leading cancer killer of both men and women in the United States.

How Serious is Lung Cancer?

Being the number one cancer of both men and women in the United States, lung cancer is extremely serious. It also has one of the lowest five year survival rates of all cancer types. The current lung cancer statistics are alarming:

  • Lung cancer causes the most cancer deaths worldwide making it a common cancer
  • More than half of people diagnosed will die within one year
  • In 1987, it surpassed breast cancer in becoming the leading cause of cancer death in women
  • Lung cancer is very costly and is not going away

Lung Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

A big misconception is that only smokers can get lung cancer, but smoking is only one of the major risk factors associated with lung cancer. Genetic factors and a family history of lung cancer may mean you are at higher risk of getting cancer. If you have a family member who currently has or had lung cancer, be sure to mention this to your doctor. While smoking and genetics can play a part in contracting this disease, changes in lung cells can also occur when people breathe in dangerous, toxic substances.


Smoking is the greatest risk factor and number one cause for developing lung cancer. In fact, it causes 90% of lung cancer cases. Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that are known to cause disease. Smokers are not the only ones affected by cigarette smoke. Breathing in secondhand smoke also puts people at risk. If you smoke, quitting is the single best thing you can do for your lung health and the health of those around you. To reduce your risk of developing lung cancer do not start smoking, quit smoking if you do smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.

For support with quitting, please visit American Lung Association


Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that exists naturally in soil. This gas comes up through the soil and enters through small cracks and gaps in buildings. One out of every 15 homes in the United States is subject to radon exposure. Your chances of contracting lung cancer greatly increase if you are a smoker and have been exposed to radon. To reduce your risk, visit a hardware store for an inexpensive, easy-to-use kit and test your own home.

Hazardous Chemicals

Hazardous chemicals exposure also poses a lung cancer risk. Asbestos, uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and some petroleum products can be especially dangerous. If you are working with these chemicals and think you may be breathing them in, please talk to your employer and doctor to discuss how to protect yourself. To reduce your risk, ask your health and safety advisor how you are being protected if you are exposed to dust and fumes at work.

Particle Pollution

Particle pollutants also increase the risk of lung cancer. This refers to a mix of very tiny, solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. To reduce your risk, work with your community to clean up the air you and your family breathe.

Screening for Lung Cancer

Lung cancer screening is where your doctor will look for cancer before any symptoms are present. If found at an early stage, cancer may be easier to treat.

How lung cancer is diagnosed will differ for each person. Your medical team will choose tests based on your medical history, symptoms, and findings from your physical exam. Unfortunately, lung cancer is usually found at an advanced stage making it incurable, so early detection is key.

It is now recommended by Medicare, American College of Chest Physicians, American Association of Thoracic Surgery, the AMA, and the American Cancer Society that patients at risk receive a low dose CT scan. This scan is designed to look for lung cancer before the presence of any symptoms. Since a lower dose of radiation is used, it is the only proven and effective way to screen for lung cancer. Doctors may also order a PET scan and Bone scan as well.

Lung Cancer Staging

Staging means finding out where cancer cells are located, the size of the tumor and if/where it has spread. Lung cancer staging will also help to determine what treatment options you have. If you think you are at risk or if you have any symptoms, talk to your doctor.

For more information on lung cancer screening or to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please visit the following link: Learn More

Lung Cancer Research and Clinical Trials

Research is needed to provide hope and save lives. Lung cancer research will provide better treatment options and increase the survival and quality of life for patients. With increased research, those diagnosed could have longer futures, ultimately increasing the number of survivors living with the disease. The hope is that with additional lung cancer research, lung cancer will be prevented, but until then, the goal is to prolong the lives of all lung cancer patients. Learn more about the lung cancer research and clinical trials we are working on.

When to See a Provider

Unfortunately, lung cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms until the cancer has spread, which makes it difficult to treat. Lung cancer screening is recommended for adult’s age 55-80 years who have smoked at least 1 pack per day for 30 years, current smokers, or former smokers who quit smoking within the last 15 years, if you have had radiation therapy in the past, or a family history of lung cancer.

View Screening Locations

On this World Lung Cancer Day, protect your health by getting screened or by seeking help from our thoracic care team at our center of Minimally Invasive Chest Surgery and Thoracic Surgical Oncology.

Schedule an appointment

Socially Distant Activities to Spread Lung Cancer Awareness

LUNG FORCE unites women and their loved ones to stand together for lung health. Visit the following link to learn how you can get involved and participate in events near you:

About the Authors

Dr. Robert McKenna

Robert McKenna, M.D., is the Professor of Surgery, and Director of the Minimally Invasive Chest Surgery and Thoracic Surgical Oncology Center at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Dr. Robert McKenna is an internationally renowned thoracic surgeon, who has dedicated over 2 decades in General Thoracic surgery research and clinical care. Learn More About Dr. Robert McKenna.

Osita, M.D., MBA Onugha,

Osita Onugha, M.D., MBA, is the Assistant Professor of Minimally Invasive Chest Surgery and Thoracic Surgical Oncology at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Dr. Onugha is a board-certified surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgery at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Dr. Onugha practices all aspects of thoracic surgery, including procedures for benign and malignant conditions of the lung, esophagus and mediastinum. Learn More About Dr. Osita Onugha.