Lung Cancer Mortality Rate Is Staggering

By W. Gifford-Jones, M.D
Created: August 18, 2012 Last Updated: August 19, 2012
Related articles: Health » Western Medicine
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Cigarette smoking is the principal cause of lung cancer. (Alexander Heimann/Getty Images)

Cigarette smoking is the principal cause of lung cancer. (Alexander Heimann/Getty Images)

My patients always give me the wrong answer when I ask them, “What cancer kills women more than any other malignancy?” Most say breast cancer. But lung cancer kills more women than breast and colon-rectal cancer combined. However, there’s hope for both sexes.

Unfortunately, there’s an interesting, recurring, depressing reaction, particularly for nonsmokers who develop lung cancer. When told that someone has breast cancer, there’s always a sympathetic ear.

But when informed a person has lung cancer, sure as night follows day, the first, quick response is, “Was he or she a smoker?” It’s a remark that puts an unfair stigma on nonsmokers.

It happened to the widow of Christopher Reeves. She developed lung cancer but never smoked. It was a tragic label for a wife who had dedicated so many years to helping her stricken husband.

This year, another 110,000 North American men and 90,000 North American women will die of this disease. Of this number, 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women have never smoked.

One would think that if smokers looked at the carnage, they would do everything in their power to stop smoking.

Breast cancer patients have an 85 percent chance of being alive five years after being treated. Those treated for lung cancer have an 85 percent chance of being dead. And 10 years after breast-cancer treatment, patients are four times more likely to have survived.

Why nonsmokers develop this malignancy is not known. A Swedish study found an increase in lung cancer in those exposed to residential radon gas, a breakdown product of uranium. But other studies have not been able to duplicate this result.

Other researchers link lung cancer to scarring that occurs with recurrent bouts of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other illnesses. Still more associate this malignancy with atmospheric exposure to a variety of products.

What about genetics? Iceland’s remote location has resulted in a national genealogy database unique to that country. This has allowed researchers to trace connections between families since the settlement of the country, particularly in a study of 2,756 patients diagnosed with lung cancer between the years 1955 to 2002.

The study concluded that lung cancer appears to run in certain families. In fact, the report from the Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik, says the risk also extends to relatives beyond the immediate family. So aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews still run a risk, but at lower levels than the immediate family.

The Icelandic study stressed that although genetics appears to play a role in developing lung cancer, tobacco smoke plays the dominant role.

The news is depressing as I write since there’s precious little to say at the moment about improving the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. The mortality figures tell the story. In spite of high-tech CT scans and MRIs, smokers will continue to die unless they stop smoking, a foolish, irrational habit.

If the smoker accomplishes this task, then the news is all good. Within minutes of a final cigarette, the body begins a series of recuperative changes that continue on and on. For instance, 20 minutes after the final puff, blood pressure falls, heart rate decreases, and body temperature of hands and feet increases to normal.

Look ahead another eight hours and the blood level of carbon monoxide drops to normal, and oxygen level becomes normal. After 24 hours, the risk of coronary attack decreases. And after 48 hours, nerve endings start working again to improve smell and taste.

During the next three months, circulation improves, and as lung function increases up to 30 percent, walking becomes easier. Former smokers also notice that within one to nine months, there’s less coughing, sinus congestion, fatigue, and shortness of breath, and they have more energy.

Just one year later, the risk of coronary attack has decreased by an amazing 50 percent. And in 10 years, the chance of developing lung cancer is similar to that of a nonsmoker.

These numbers are better odds than one kind find in Las Vegas. Surely, any sane person would toss cigarettes away.

Dr. Gifford-Jones is a medical journalist with a private medical practice in Toronto. His website is He may be contacted at

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