The most common stigma about lung cancer is that it is a “smoker’s disease.” This stereotype is particularly troubling to Saeid Khansarinia, M.D., a thoracic surgeon at Piedmont, because it limits public awareness of the condition. While other cancers — breast, prostate and colon, to name a few — have widespread awareness campaigns and fundraising efforts, lung cancer typically gets less attention, despite high death rates.
Dr. Khansarinia hopes to reverse this stigma, especially as the rate of lung cancer in non-smokers and women is on the rise.
“It’s a very interesting notion that the rate of death by lung cancer in the United State is rising,” he says. “It’s a frightening number because it is estimated more than 160,000 people will die of lung cancer in the United States. It’s 28 percent of all cancer deaths.”
While lung cancer cases are on the rise among women and non-smokers, it appears to have plateaued in men.
This is likely thanks to education, awareness and a decrease in smoking, says Dr. Khansarinia.
There are two types of lung cancer: small cell and non-small cell. Small cell cancers are often metastatic by the time they are identified and are often considered to be inoperable.
Non-small cell lung cancer is divided into three separate categories: adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
“Squamous cell carcinoma is most commonly associated with smokers, but there are plenty of people who smoke and get lung cancer that is not squamous — it may be adenocarcinoma or large cell carcinoma,” notes Dr. Khansarinia.
As the number of cases increases, screening methods remain limited
“The sad part is, the rate of lung cancer in nonsmoking women is on the rise and we have no good reason [why] that is,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are no current, good studies or tests to evaluate the patient because there is risk associated with exposing them to radiation from CT scans or X-rays. Based on long-term studies, chest X-rays alone are not good screening exams to detect lung cancer. It’s always been a concern of mine.”
He says that secondhand smoke and radon exposure can play a role in the development of lung cancer, but plenty of patients who have rarely been exposed can still have lung cancer.
“Unfortunately, there is a generalized stigma attached with patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer — that it may be due to their behavior,” Dr. Khansarinia explains. “What we have to do is forget about that stigma and start looking at the number one cancer in the United States. After heart disease, lung cancer is the largest killer in the United States.”
In fact, he says, the number of patients who die every year from lung cancer is higher than the number of deaths caused by colon, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer combined.
“That’s not fair to that group of patients who have not smoked,” says Dr. Khansarinia. “What we have to do is fight the disease, not fight the stigma.”
Learn more about cancer prevention and screening.