Lung cancer happens due to excessive and uncontrolled cell division of cells in the lung, resulting in the growth of tumours. There are 2 major types of lung cancer—non-small cell lung cancer (NSLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).
In Singapore, lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer among men and the third most common among women. It is also the most common cause of cancer death worldwide.
Here are 10 medical myths about lung cancer, answered by a lung specialist:
Myth #1: “Only smokers can get lung cancer”
While lung cancer has always been thought to have been mainly associated with people who smoke, there is now a significantly higher proportion of non-smokers among those diagnosed with lung cancer in Singapore.
A 2018 study by the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) showed that 48% of people diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer were actually non-smokers, and the trend has been rising, especially in non-smoking women.
Myth #2: “I’ve smoked for years, there’s no point stopping now”
Smoking cessation is always a good thing, no matter how many years you have smoked. Damage and risks associated with tobacco smoking usually have a cumulative effect, and sequelae of smoking may only manifest many years later.
Quitting smoking as soon as possible will help to minimise your health risks in the future, and may also halt the progression of any lung and organ damage that has already occurred. In fact, after smoking, your lungs start to heal and regenerate. For example, the cilia (tiny hair-like structures that line the lungs) start to regain normal function in weeks to months.
Myth #3: “If you have lung cancer, it doesn’t pay to quit smoking”
No matter which stage you are at in your health journey, quitting smoking is beneficial for your health. In fact, when you have lung cancer, your treatment plan will require surgery or chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. This will require you to maintain your health well to minimise side effects of these treatments and ensure they are the most effective they can be. Continuing to smoke increases the chance of recurrence in a previously treated cancer.
If lung cancer is detected early, there is as high as an 80% chance of cure (Stage I). Early diagnosis may also make you eligible for a minimally invasive thoracic procedure, which entails faster recovery and a shorter hospital stay.
Myth #4: “Lung cancer surgery causes cancer to spread”
A properly done operation will not spread lung cancer. A thorough lung surgeon, along with advancements in equipment and detailed imaging tests, makes this risk very low.
Lung cancer surgery is usually done to remove the tumour from the lungs, and to ensure that all of it is removed, a small sliver of normal lung tissue is usually removed together with the tumour to make sure nothing is left behind.
Myth #5: “I don’t have symptoms, so I don’t have lung cancer”
Lung cancer may be very insidious, and signs and symptoms typically only present in the late stages of the disease. In fact, only around 20%-25% of lung cancers are detected early.
Early lung screening involves a low-dose CT scan, which allows your doctor to detect asymptomatic lung cancer.
Myth #6: “Lung cancer is definitely terminal”
Not all lung cancers are diagnosed during end-stage disease. In some cases, patients maybe cured completely after surgical removal of the tumour. This is especially so if the cancer is detected in its early stages.
Myth #7:“Smoking is the only risk factor for lung cancer”
Other environmental risk factors aside from tobacco smoking include second-hand smoke exposure and air pollution. Chemical exposure to substances such as asbestos and occupational hazards for those working in chemical industries.
Myth #8: “A polluted environment poses a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking”
Although both smoking and air pollution is linked to lung cancer, smoking remains the biggest risk factor for lung cancer.
Myth #9: “I am too old to receive lung cancer treatment”
Nobody is too old to receive treatment. In fact, elderly patients are candidates for cancer treatment for all types of cancers. Whether or not you are eligible typically depends on your medical background and overall health condition.
Myth #10: “Switching to e-cigarettes (vaping) reduces my risk of lung cancer”
E-cigarettes typically contain substances such as nicotine and other toxic chemicals, which can still damage the lung and increase the risk of lung cancer. It is also important to note the long-term effects of vaping are still being studied, and it is advised to err on the side of caution. A better alternative would be to stop smoking completely, and not use e-cigarettes as a replacement, as they are still harmful to health.
Overall, lung cancer is very common, and understandably, there are many misconceptions surrounding the topic. However, because of its prevalence, it is important to be well-informed.
In Singapore, lung cancer screening is not part of the general population-level cancer screening regimen yet. However, lung cancer screening may be recommended by some doctors for those with risk factors such as having a ≥20 pack-year (1 pack year refers to smoking an average of 1 pack of cigarettes per day, for a year) smoking history, in the elderly, or those who have been regular smokers anytime within the last 15 years, people with a family history of lung cancer, and people with a history of other cancers. Lung cancer screening may be done using a low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan, which can help to take detailed images of the lungs to help look out for any tumours.
Blaha, Michael Joseph. “5 Vaping Facts You Need to Know.” Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed 31 January 2023.
“Lung Cancer Among People Who Never Smoked | CDC” Centers for Disease Control andPrevention. Accessed 31 January2023.
“Lung cancer-Symptoms and causes” Mayo Clinic, 22 March 2022. Accessed 31 January 2023.
“Risks of Cancer Surgery” American Cancer Society, 2 October 2019. Accessed 31 January 2023.