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Good news on lung cancer: What to make of it

Recently, an analysis by the American Cancer Society found that the overall cancer death rate in the U.S. made its "biggest single-year drop ever," or 2.2%, between 2016 and 2017. On average, cancer rates have been dropping by about 1.5% per year over the last three decades. That means the cancer death rate dropped nearly twice as fast as usual during the study period.

Moreover, a spokesperson for the cancer society said that the drop seems to be driven largely by reductions in lung cancer mortality.

This is "very encouraging, because lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., causing more deaths than breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined," she notes.

Why is the lung cancer rate going down?

The researchers believe that the overall lung cancer rate is going down for two main reasons. One is that cigarette smoking -- the largest risk for ordinary lung cancer -- has been dropping for several decades. The second is that a number of new drugs and interventions are helping people survive longer.

It's great news that smoking is down, but many people who have never smoked still get lung cancer. For example, people who are exposed to asbestos sometimes get mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer that is specifically tied to asbestos.

Not all lung cancers are equal

According to NPR, when you consider all types of lung cancer at all stages of development, about 19% of people diagnosed with lung cancer are still alive five years after that diagnosis.

It's important to differentiate advanced lung cancer, however. When the cancer has spread to another part of the body, the five-year survival rate is only 5%. When it comes to mesothelioma, specifically, diagnosis is difficult and often comes at a late stage. The five-year survival rate for mesothelioma is between 13% and 16%.

What can I do to reduce my risk of lung cancer?

The first step is to avoid exposing your lungs to cancer-causing substances like those found in cigarettes and products that contain asbestos. One of those, evidence suggests, is talcum powder, which is commonly used as baby powder and in cosmetics.

It is more difficult to avoid asbestos, as the substance was used ubiquitously before 1978 and still remains in use in some sectors today. Asbestos is present in many older homes and can become airborne if disturbed. It is also present in many types of insulated products, and people in a wide variety of industries may be exposed, such as:

  • Construction and all related trades
  • Firefighting
  • Automobile manufacturing and maintenance
  • Aeronautics
  • Shipyards
  • Pipefitting
  • Railroads
  • Chemical plants
  • Military workers

Once you've done your best to protect your lungs from exposure to carcinogens, you may wish to consider getting a lung cancer screening called low-dose computed tomography, or LDCT. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends this screening for people between 55 and 80 with a 30 pack-year history of smoking, whether they still smoke or quit within the last 15 years.

Under the Affordable Care Act, people who meet these guidelines can receive this screening at no charge. Nevertheless, only 4.4% of those eligible for the screening had it in 2015. Instead, many people had chest X-rays, which are actually not suited to detect lung cancer.

Finally, it's important to note that while the cancer rate has dropped, the actual number of people dying from cancer each year is actually rising due to an aging population. More than 600,000 people die in the U.S. from cancer each year.

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