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Screening, Treating, & Surviving Lung Cancer

Who Gets Lung Cancer, and How to Handle It: Q&A
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WebMD Health News

Aug. 9, 2005 -- Lung cancer has entered the headlines with the recent death of news anchor Peter Jennings and an announcement by Christopher Reeve's widow, Dana.

Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths for U.S. men and women. Health professionals agree that smoking greatly raises the risk of lung cancer and that quitting smoking can have major health benefits. But all smokers don't get lung cancer, and all lung cancer patients aren't smokers.

WebMD spoke about lung cancer and lung cancer survival with Jay Brooks, MD, chief of hematology and oncology at the Ochsner Clinic in Baton Rouge, La.

Q. Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve, has announced that she has lung cancer. A spokeswoman for the Christopher Reeve Foundation reportedly said that Dana Reeve didn't smoke but didn't elaborate on that. How many people get lung cancer who do not smoke?

A. Less than 5% of people who get lung cancer have a history that [doesn't include] tobacco. That is either directly smoking cigarettes or cigars, or they do not work in a smoking-related environment. What that means is either in a home with a smoking spouse or having tobacco exposure in a workplace.

Q. So you're talking about heavy tobacco exposure?

A. Well, there is no safe level of tobacco exposure. No one has ever calculated a dose that is a safe level.

Q. What do we know about the people who are in that less-than-5% group?

A. They're a group of patients that we don't completely understand why they develop lung cancer. There are some unusual types of lung cancer that they could [have].

(WebMD received a news release on that topic from the American Cancer Society. The news release states, "A spokesperson is quoted as saying Ms. Reeve is not a smoker. Lung cancer does occur in people who have never smoked, even though cigarette smoking is by far the biggest risk factor for lung cancer in the U.S., causing an estimated 80% of lung cancers in women and 90% in men. Known risk factors that may affect never-smokers include exposure to secondhand smoke and radon, as well as occupational exposure to asbestos and certain chemicals and metals. Genetic susceptibility is thought to play a greater role in people who develop lung cancer at an early age. Fewer than 3% of lung cancers occur in people under the age of 45.")

Do Any Treatments Work?

Q. Some people say they've heard that even if lung cancer is flagged early, there are no good treatments.

A. I'm not going to say that. I think that's a very fatalistic approach. We desperately need ways of detecting early lung cancers. But I think there is a group of patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer in whom surgery can effectively cure them of their lung cancer. The use now of chemotherapy after lung cancer has been operated on definitely can improve the chances of being alive. The use of combinations of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also improve the chances of patients who have more advanced stages of lung cancer.

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