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Do You Know the One Cancer that Kills More Women than Any Other? The Answer May Shock You. It's Lung Cancer.

Updated on December 13, 2013

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A Subject Near and Dear to the Heart

It's said confession is good for the soul. So, in that light and for disclosure I'll admit this topic is one that's near and dear to my heart. Better put, it's one that has touched me personally.

I'll share with you my story, things you can look for, resources and most of all cast hope on a dark subject.

But, before we begin, let's take a poll and see if you know what cancer is the number one killer among women.

A Little Background

Many of you might have guessed breast cancer as the number one cancer killer among women. And, in fairness, it would be logical to guess that because breast cancer does receive so much attention in the media and public. It's truly a worthy cause and I support all of those efforts.

But, because of those efforts and research breast cancer has become one of the most survivable cancers if detected early enough.

The number one killer lurking quietly waiting to pounce is - lung cancer. Yes, more women die yearly from lung cancer than breast cancer. The staggering truth is lung cancer kills more people yearly than prostrate, ovarian, colon and breast cancer combined.

With that said, I think it's time we make lung cancer our next medical quest to conquer.

I've already said this is a subject that hits close to home - and I mean very close to home. You see, I'm a two time NON-smoking lung cancer survivor. Yes, you read that correctly. Two times. NON-smoking.

I was not your typical candidate for lung cancer. I had none of the known risk factors. Never smoked - no, never. Never lived with a smoker or was exposed to second hand smoke. There was no history of lung cancer in my family. So how the heck does someone like me get lung cancer?

And, to boggle your mind even further, my first bout of lung cancer occurred when I was 28 years old. At that time a portion of my right lung was removed.

Thirteen cancer free years followed and then out of now where cancer came knocking again. This time 60% of my left lung was removed because of cancer.

I was a healthy, thin young adult when I developed my cancers - if anything I was anorexic. Doctors have been baffled for years as to the "why" of my cases of cancer. I do know that in the years that followed, my health deteriorated and I have been plagued with autoimmune disorders, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and a laundry list of other health problems. Is this typical of other non-smoking lung cancer survivors? That I don't know?

I do know this. Non-smoking lung cancer is on the rise among women. One in five women will develop non-smoking lung cancer. That's 20% - and doctors are mystified. I hit that jackpot twice - I only wish I could have that kind of odds with the lottery.

Furthermore, the five year survival rate of lung cancer survivors is 16%. Lung cancer rates in men have dropped 21%, but have risen 116% among women.

Something is wrong and we really need to find out what's going on.


Profile of a Killer

So you may be asking yourself as I did, "What causes non-smoking lung cancer?" The answer is as elusive as a winged unicorn.

Currently there is just speculation. A recent article in US News and World Report made it clear that the medical world is mystified.

Unlike criminal profiling, profiling just who develops this devastating disease is not as an exact science as we would like to think - especially when it comes to those who have never smoked.

Possible causes are:

  • Air pollution
  • Genetics
  • Exposure to radon, uranium, arsenic, asbestos, nickle and other hazardous chemicals
  • Second hand smoke

Yet, when patients homes and other areas of their lives are tested for these factors, many times they yield negative results. Many like myself have never been exposed to second hand smoke.

The root may be in the type of lung cancer.

Types of Lung Cancer

There are three main types of lung cancer. It's important to know the type of lung cancer you're dealing with because it affects the type of treatment you'll receive and your recovery and prognosis.

The three types of lung cancer are:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer
  • Small cell lung cancer
  • Lung carcinoid tumor

Non-small Cell Lung Cancer

This cancer accounts for about 85% of lung cancer therefore making it the most common lung cancer. There are three sub-types of non-small cell lung cancer.

The sub-types are:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Large cell carcinoma

I'll discuss adenocarcinoma because my second bout with non-smoking lung cancer fell into the adenocarcinoma category. It is the most common lung cancer found in non-smokers, the most common found in women and in younger patients. It also tends to grow slower than the other types of cancer in this class and grows on the outer areas of the lung.

Again, I seem to have hit the proverbial bull's eye on this one because my cancer was found growing on the apex of my left lung on the outside of the lung.

My doctor had ordered a bronchoscopy, which was a form of a biopsy. During the test a tube was inserted through my nose into my lung and a small portion of my lung was removed for biopsy purposes. In my case the biopsy returned negative, but my radiologist felt we should go ahead with surgery - and that saved my life because the cancer was growing on the outside of my lung. 60% of my left lung was removed.

There are signs and symptoms you can look for if you suspect you may have non-small cell lung cancer (these symptoms also apply for other types of lung cancer). Consult with a doctor if you notice any of these symptoms persisting:

  • A cough that hangs on - it may even it worsen over time. It's not your allergies or sinus or a cold.
  • Chest pain that hurts when you breathe deep or cough.
  • Loss of appetite or weight
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired and weak
  • I had a terrible headache most of the time - I think because I was coughing so hard.

There are several tests and screening exams your doctor can use. Some are non-invasive like x-rays, MRIs and bone scans.

If you do receive a diagnosis of lung cancer, your doctor or team of doctors will go over your course of treatment and your prognosis. The 5 years survival rate depends of the stage of cancer at diagnosis, so it's crucial to see a doctor as soon as you suspect something might be wrong.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer (sometimes called oat cell lung cancer) accounts for about 10 to 15 % of lung cancer cases. It is a virulent, fast growing cancer and it tends to spread to other part of the body before it's found.

The symptoms to watch for are the same as they are for non-small cell lung cancer even though the cancers look different under microscopic examination and attack the lungs differently.

Smoking is the cause for about 80% of lung cancer related deaths. That figure is even higher among patients with small cell lung cancer. So, it should go without saying - smoking is the primary risk factor for small cell lung cancer. Of course other factors like family history, genetics, second hand smoke and hazardous chemicals can be the culprits triggering this devastating disease.

Prompt medical treatment can only help in survivability and longevity possibilities.

Lung Carcinoid Tumor

This type of cancer is rare, accounting for only about 5% of lung cancers. It's the type of cancer I had in my right lung at the age of 28. It was a miracle it was even found.

Carcinoids are very slow growing and sometimes can be associated with carcinoid syndrome.

Risk factors are:

  • They are more commonly found in women.
  • Found in people about 60 years old which is slightly younger that the average lung cancer patient.
  • More common in Caucasian people.
  • You may have an increase chance if a family member has had a carcinoid.
  • If you have multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (people are at risk for tumors in endocrine glands).

As you can see, at age 28 I was a very unlikely candidate for lung carcinoid cancer.

This type of lung cancer is baffling to many doctors. I have gone to doctor appointments for different issues just to have a doctor want to only discuss my carcinoid cancer.

The American Cancer Society has some of the best up to date information of this type of lung cancer.

What is Carcinoid Cancer and Carcinoid Syndrome?

Lung Cancer Awareness

November is Lung Cancer Awareness month. I realize we've miss that by a couple of days, but, it is never wrong to educate and raise awareness. My goal, hope, dream and prayer is that we can raise the awareness on lung cancer to the level we have seen breast cancer awareness raised. And, in doing so see lung cancer become a more survivable cancer like breast cancer.

I've always pointed out - ladies, we can survive without our tatas, but we can't survive without our lungs.

Please take the time to check the resources at the American Cancer Society on lung cancer. It is an excellent place to begin awareness.

As far as hope. In January I will celebrate 32 cancer free years in my right lung. This past October 25th, I celebrated 18 cancer free years in my left lung. That is 5 year many times over - that's a lot of hope - and a lot of thankfulness.

So, yes, lung cancer can be survived - not only once but twice.

Causes of Lung Cancer for Non-Smokers - The Doctors

© 2013 Beverly Hicks Burch

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    • BeverlyHicksBurch profile image
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      Beverly Hicks Burch 3 years ago from Southeastern United States

      Thank you. Awareness is one mission I hope to accomplish for that very reason, especially since non-smoking lung cancer is on the rise, particularly in woman.

    • john000 profile image

      John R Wilsdon 3 years ago from Superior, Arizona

      Astounding information. I had no idea lung cancer was so prevalent, although my mother-in-law passed from it. Good info, good hub. Nice job.