How Common Is Lung Cancer?

Incidence and Prevalence of Lung Cancer in the United States

diagram of the lungs with pieces falling off one lung
How common is lung cancer?. Photo©wildpixel

You have probably heard that lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States and that 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will develop cancer in their lifetime. But what is the chance that you personally will develop lung cancer? Of course, a history of smoking raises the odds, but there are many causes of lung cancer beyond smoking.

How Common is Lung Cancer Overall in the United States?

When talking about lung cancer it’s important to first distinguish primary lung cancer from cancers that begin in other regions of the body and spread to the lungs. Many cancer spread to the lungs, such as breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and kidney cancer. In this case, the cancer would be called a cancer of whichever organ the cancer begins in, metastatic to the lungs. For example, a cancer that starts in the breast and later spreads to the lungs would not be called lung cancer, but instead a primary breast cancer metastatic to the lungs. This article refers to only the number of people diagnosed with primary lung cancer, and not to those who have cancers metastatic to the lungs.

In the United States, lung cancer is responsible for more cancer-related deaths than any other cancer. In 2015 it’s expected that 221,200 people will develop lung cancer, and 158,040 will die from the disease.

The lifetime risk that a man will develop lung cancer is 1 in 13, while that for women is 1 in 16. Lung cancer accounts for 13 percent of all cancer diagnoses and 27 percent of all cancer deaths. The number of lung cancer deaths in men has been decreasing in recent years, while that of women has been stabilizing. The average age for a diagnosis of lung cancer is 72, but for unknown reasons, the incidence of lung cancer in young, never smoking women has significantly increased in recent years.

How Common is Lung Cancer Around the World?

Worldwide, lung cancer is the most common form of cancer, with roughly 1.8 million people having been diagnosed in 2012 (the last year for which we have statistics available.) Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer in men worldwide, but 50 percent of women with lung cancer around the world have never smoked.

How Common is Lung Cancer in People Who Smoke?

Smoking is clearly a risk factor for lung cancer and is thought to be responsible for at least 80% of lung cancers diagnosed in the United States. Risk increases with the duration of smoking multiplied by the amount smoked daily, something referred to as "pack-years" of smoking. Quitting smoking decreases risk, and quitting after a diagnosis of lung cancer improves survival and quality of life.

There is little data separating out lung cancer risk between smokers and non-smokers in the U.S., but studies in other countries have evaluated this in some depth.

In a 2006 European study, the risk of developing lung cancer was:

  • 0.2 percent for men who never smoked (0.4 percent for women)
  • 5.5 percent of male former smokers (2.6 percent in women)
  • 15.9 percent of current male smokers (9.5 percent for women)
  • 24.4 percent for male “heavy smokers” defined as smoking more than 5 cigarettes per day (18.5 percent for women)

An earlier Canadian study quoted the lifetime risk for male smokers at 17.2 percent (11.6 percent in women) versus only 1.3 percent in male non-smokers (1.4 [percent in female non-smokers).

How Common is Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers?

One of the top 10 lung cancer myths is that lung cancer only occurs in people who smoke. That is not true. In fact, lung cancer in people who have never smoked is in the top 10 causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States. At the current time, the majority of people diagnosed with non-smokers—meaning that they either smoked in the past and quit (former smokers,) or never smoked.

Overall 10-15 percent of people who develop lung cancer have never smoked, and 20 percent of women with lung cancer are lifelong non-smokers. This is an extremely important point: anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. Check out some of the causes of lung cancer in non-smokers, especially the risk of radon exposure in the home, to see what you can do to lower your risk.

How Many Lung Cancer Survivors are There in the United States?

As of January 1, 2014, there were 430,090 lung cancer survivors living in the United States, representing 3 percent of women with cancer and 3 percent of men with cancer. Over the past few years, significant advances have been made in both the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer, and it’s hoped that the number of people surviving and living beyond lung cancer will improve significantly in the near future.

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