Lung Cancer in Young Adults

Young woman with cancer talking with a nurse and looking at test results on a tablet

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Many people think of lung cancer as a disease of older people, but lung cancer does occur in young people. The public was reminded of this when Dana Reeve, best known as the wife of "Superman" and a never smoker, died from lung cancer at the age of 44.

Of concern is that lung cancer in young adults appears to be increasing. How common is lung cancer in younger people, how does it differ from lung cancer in older people, and what are some resources that are available if you are a young lung cancer survivor?

Defining Lung Cancer in Young People

There aren’t any clear criteria defining “young” when it comes to lung cancer. Many studies and articles discuss lung cancer occurring under the age of 40 or 45 or 50 as young. Other people would define “young” as being diagnosed with lung cancer before the age of 60. Currently, the average age at diagnosis is 70.

How Common Is It?

At first glance, lung cancer in young people may seem uncommon. But considering that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women in the United States, even a small percentage can translate to many people with the disease. Every year, about 200,000 people are diagnosed and 150,000 people die. The deaths are not limited to older people. Approximately 13% are younger than age 50 years.

How Lung Cancer in Young People Is Different

When it comes to individual people with lung cancer, there are many variations in the type of cancer, characteristics of the cancer, and factors such as hereditary predisposition. But statistically, there are some ways in which lung cancer in young people is quite different from lung cancer in older people. Some of these include:

Stage at Diagnosis

Younger people tend to have more advanced lung cancer at the time of diagnosis than older patients; a greater number of young patients are diagnosed with stage 4 disease. This makes sense in some ways. Lung cancer—especially in young, healthy, never-smokers—isn’t usually high on a doctor's radar screen, and this can result in a delay in diagnosis. Those who are young are often first diagnosed with asthma, bronchitis, or even allergies before the diagnosis is finally made. Many young people have had chest X-rays which have failed to show cancer, and it's important for anyone of any age to know that chest X-rays can miss a diagnosis of lung cancer.

Genetic Predisposition

People who are diagnosed with lung cancer at a young age are more likely to have other family members who have suffered from the disease. It's likely that heredity plays a much larger role in lung cancer that develops in young patients than in older patients, and researchers are just beginning to identify some of the genes that may predispose young people to the development of lung cancer.

Type of Lung Cancer

The most common type of lung cancer in young people is lung adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer, accounting for roughly 57 percent of lung cancers in young adults. Among older adults lung adenocarcinoma is found is slightly less than 45 percent of the time.

Molecular Profile

All young adults with lung cancer should have gene testing (molecular profiling) done. Young adults with lung cancer are more likely to have an EGFR mutation, a mutation in a gene that develops after birth and codes for a protein that "drives" the growth and spread of cancer.

A few studies have found these mutations to be present in around 50 percent of young adults compared with 10 percent of non-Asian older adults, with more recent studies and the discovery of new mutations) increasing this number to 85 percent in some. (People of Asian ethnicity have a high incidence of EGFR mutations whether they are young adults or older adults.)

Thankfully a few targeted therapies are now available that address this mutation and can result in prolonged progression-free survival for many people with these mutations. There are also other gene mutations that appear to be more common in young people.

A 2015 study of adults age 30 or less with lung cancer found that EGFR mutations, as well as some other common targetable gene mutations, were more prevalent than in older adults with the disease. Other mutations, such as ALK rearrangements and ROS1 rearrangements are much more common in young adults with the disease.

Survival Rate

Studies vary, with some showing better survival and others poorer survival rates than older patients. In general, despite being diagnosed at a later stage, younger patients appear to fare better than older patients in recent studies. While targeted therapies cannot currently cure the disease, they can sometimes control the disease for lengthy periods of time.

Since young people have a high incidence of these mutations, many people are able to keep their cancer in check through these therapies (therapies that usually have much fewer side effects than chemotherapy). And, while the cancer is controlled, researchers are working on next-generation medications for when resistance develops.


Young adults are not alone, as anyone of any age often suffers from the stigma of lung cancer. If a young adult is diagnosed with, say, leukemia or breast cancer, think of the first remarks someone may make. Instead, now consider the first words young people with lung cancer often hear upon meeting up with friends and acquaintances: "How long did you smoke?" Or, "I didn't know you smoked!" Not only is this emotionally painful for young people who may feel isolated with their diagnosis in the first place, but they are often "blamed" for their disease whether or not they ever smoked. A young lung cancer survivor had a good comeback when she was asked this question after meeting someone new. She said, "I would have had to start smoking in the womb."


Resources are available for young adults with lung cancer, and young adults with any form of cancer. Some people with lung cancer prefer local and online support groups which include only people with lung cancer. The reason is fairly simple. If you are coping with stage 4 lung cancer and the frightening survival statistics, it may be hard to identify with a woman with early-stage breast cancer with a 5-year survival rate of over 90 percent, and who is most concerned about preserving her fertility.

In addition, to support groups and chat rooms, some wonderful young lung cancer survivors have taken the time to blog about their journey—a journey that may help you feel less alone as you begin your own journey. Check out these blogs, many of which are written by young survivors with young families.

The Bonnie J. Addario lung cancer foundation is specifically addressing both the differences in molecular profiles for lung cancer in young adults and the unique needs of lung survivors. If you are 50 years old or younger with lung cancer, make sure to contact the Foundation.

LUNGevity has played an amazing role in connecting young people with lung cancer. Each year the organization hosts the annual HOPE Summit in Washington DC, as well as several regional summits around the country.

At the 2018 HOPE Summit, photographers took pictures of roughly 3 dozen young lung cancer survivors who spent a long weekend together learning, playing, and forming lifelong friendships, and not everyone was in the photo. These young survivors and their caregivers (since the first summit in 2011) have gone on to not only spend these times together and connect on social media the rest of the year, but many have traveled across the country to spend time with each other and give support when needed. They become like family, only they all have a very common experience and goal.

Many young people with lung cancer have become very involved with social media and the online cancer community. Every other Tuesday evening there is a tweet chat which includes people with lung cancer, advocates, family members, oncologists, radiation oncologists, thoracic surgeons, researchers, and more. This is an amazing opportunity to talk directly with the experts who are on the leading edge in lung cancer research. To find the community, use the hashtag #LCSM which stands for lung cancer social media.

And for young adults with all forms of cancer:

  • Stupid Cancer: The Voice of Young Adult Cancer is a community that meets online as well as in person in order to empower young adults with cancer. There is also a Stupid Cancer radio show as well as a chance to meet face to face with other young adults with cancer from around the country at the annual summit and regional meet-ups.

Practical support for young adults with cancer:

  • The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults: This organization, in addition to other forms of support, provides a free one-on-one navigation system to help you address the many issues that young cancer patients may face, to help ensure that no young adults face cancer alone. Some topics may include fertility concerns, how to return to work or school after treatment, college scholarships, financial assistance, and health and wellness concerns.
  • CancerCare: CancerCare provides support services such as free counseling, support groups (both in-person and online,) financial assistance, and educational workshops accessible from your phone or computer for people living with cancer and their families.

A Word From Verywell

Lung cancer in young adults is, in many ways, a different disease. Young people are more likely to have been never smokers, have targetable gene mutations, and to be diagnosed in the later stages of the disease after being misdiagnosed for some time.

Until only recently, those who were young with the disease felt isolated and were treated the same way an older person with the disease was treated. Thankfully, organizations such as the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation are both helping to support young people with the disease and fund research aimed at better understanding the unique differences of this disease in young adults.

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Article Sources

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