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The top killer cancer you don’t know about: November marks Lung Cancer Awareness Month


ANN ARBOR, MI – This year, as in the past, lung cancer will kill more Americans than any other cancer. In fact, lung cancer will claim more lives than the next four leading cancer killers -- breast, prostate, colon and pancreas cancers -- combined.

Gregory Kalemkerian, M.D.The facts about lung cancer are startling, and few people realize the true scope of the disease. Gregory Kalemkerian, M.D., co-director of thoracic oncology at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center has provided the top nine facts to know about lung cancer:

1. The death toll is high. About 213,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year and more than 160,000 die from it.
2. For smokers, the symptoms are familiar. Coughing, shortness of breath, weight loss, fatigue and coughing up blood are often the first symptoms of the early stages of the disease. “The biggest problem is that most people are diagnosed late, because early stage symptoms are common to smokers,” said Kalemkerian.
3. Late diagnoses make it deadly. “Surgery is the most curable treatment for almost any cancer but few people with lung cancer come in early enough for us to do this,” explained Kalemkerian, professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School. Most people seek treatment only after experiencing symptoms that are associated with spread of the disease, such as chest pain, weakness in a limb or bone pain. In fact, three-fourths of people with lung cancer are diagnosed with advanced forms of the disease.
4. There is an easy way to prevent it. Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. “Many of my patients feel guilty that they have done this, not only to themselves, but to their families,” Kalemkerian said. About 90 percent of those with the disease are or were smokers. A two-pack-a-day habit for 30 years leads to a 30-fold to 40-fold increase in risk versus a non-smoker.
5. Lung cancer patients and survivors feel stigmatized. “Unlike breast and prostate cancer, there is a significant lack of survivor advocacy,” Kalemkerian said. This is due in part to the high mortality rate but also because of the stigma that most patients brought it on themselves by smoking.
6. Smoking is the easiest way to get lung cancer, but not the only way. Only 10 percent of cases are not caused directly by smoking. Many assume that certain occupational hazards, such as firefighting, are at high risk. Kalemkerian says this is not true: “There are few occupational hazards that have been directly related to the likelihood of getting the disease.” Exposure to radon, asbestos and hydrocarbons do raise one’s risk of developing this type of cancer.
7. It is complicated to treat. “Smokers, in particular, have had phenomenal exposure to carcinogens, the substances that cause mutations in cells and lead to the development of cancer,” Kalemkerian said. This makes the disease harder to treat and more deadly. Cancers have identifiable mutations that doctors are now developing specific treatments against. Kalemkerian explained that lung cancers, because of the exceptional amount of carcinogen exposure, have multiple mutations that make treating and killing the mutated cancerous cells especially hard.
8. Testing for it is difficult. “We have yet to identify a screening test that has impacted mortality rates, but we are working on it,” Kalemkerian said. More conclusive data should be available in the coming years, which researchers hope will produce a more effective test to catch the cancer earlier and save more lives.
9. It is a worldwide killer. Worldwide, 1.2 million people per year will die from the disease, and diagnoses are rapidly increasing. Sharp increases are being seen particularly in developing countries as tobacco products become increasingly available in these regions, Kalemkerian said.

For information about lung cancer, visit or call the U-M Cancer AnswerLine at 800-865-1125.

Kalemkerian will give a talk titled “Together Facing Lung Cancer” on Tuesday, Nov. 27, from 6-8p.m. It is open to the public and will be held at the Wellness Community, 2010 Hogback Road, Suite 3, Ann Arbor. For more information, visit

Written by Milly Dick


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