Kentucky Lung Cancer Policy Discussion: Disparities and Radon Awareness

A discussion held by the American Lung Association to close out Lung Cancer Awareness Month in Kentucky.

Key speakers:

Shannon Baker – Director of Advocacy for the American Lung Association 

Lindi Campbell – Lung cancer survivor, advocate, and Founder of Breath of Hope Kentucky 

Dr. Timothy Mullett – Professor of Thoracic Surgery UK Healthcare 

Kyle Hoylman – CEO, Protect Environmental

Ellen Hahn Ph.D, RN, FAAN – Director of University of Kentucky College of Nursing BREATHE

Blog Video

Lung Cancer Awareness – Prevention, Treatment, and Survivorship

For Lung Cancer Awareness Month, our goal is to raise awareness of the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world. Understanding prevention, treatment, and survivorship are all vital to fighting the effects of lung cancer in our communities. With one voice, we can work together to raise awareness that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.

Risk Reduction and Early Detection

The fight against lung cancer in Kentucky begins with reducing or eliminating risk factors that have the possibility to lead to a lung cancer diagnosis. In our interview with Jennifer Knight, Partnership and Sustainability Specialist at the Kentucky Cancer Consortium, we learn about the importance of lung cancer risk reduction as it can be the difference between life or death.

  • Kentucky is now second in number of lung cancer screening in the U.S. As of 2021, the state has seen an increase in lung cancer early detection.
  • Screening is important to decrease late-stage lung cancer diagnoses and increase survival rates.
  • The lung cancer stigma prevents many people from having effective conversations with health care providers and receiving the necessary screenings.
  • Shared decision-making conversations with a physician help foster necessary discussions about the risk factors of lung cancer, including radon gas and secondhand smoke.
  • Policy work surrounding lung cancer is increasing to improve lung cancer survival statistics, but there is more work to be done.
  • There is continuing research on who is eligible for lung cancer screenings.

During a shared decision-making conversation with the physician is a perfect time to talk about radon and having your home tested. And the same goes for dangers of secondhand smoke… because when you combined smoking, radon gas, and secondhand smoke, the risk for lung cancer goes up astronomically.

Lung Cancer Treatment

For those who are diagnosed, lung cancer research and treatment has come a long way. Ongoing research efforts will continue to improve treatment options and increase survival statistics. In talking with Dr. Tim Mullett, Specialist and Professor of Thoracic Surgery at the UK Markey Cancer Center, greater education and awareness are needed to prevent lung cancer and to detect the disease sooner. Those diagnosed in an earlier stage have more treatment options compared to those diagnosed at a later stage. Depending on your exposure risk, talk to your doctor about whether you qualify for lung cancer screening.

  • Lung cancer can easily go undetected and can show very few symptoms in the early stages.
  • There are a growing number of women diagnosed with lung cancer who have never smoked.
  • Treatment plans for lung cancer have expanded greatly over the past 10 years, with targeted therapy treatment and surgery.
  • Doctors should continue to look at the causes of lung cancer beyond smoking and continue conversations about other possible risk factors.
  • Targeted therapy is transforming how we view cancer mutations and the different causes of lung cancer, including radon gas.
  • As lung cancer research continues, there is an increase in better treatment for future lung cancer patients.

It’s important as health care professionals to all work to break down that stigma, that it’s only tobacco, and get to where lung cancer is a discussion about risk and benefit. And today, because of our use of lung cancer screening and the increasing impact of targeted therapy, we need to talk about the hope of the future.

Lung Cancer Survivorship

A lung cancer diagnosis is devastating, regardless of what led to the diagnosis, smoking history or not. Smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer. No one living with lung cancer should have to battle alone. Lindi Campbell, Lung Cancer Survivor and Founder of Breath of Hope KY, is a lung cancer survivor using her voice to advocate for better lung cancer survival rates in Kentucky through research and education. Lindi has created a community network through Facebook to connect other survivors across Kentucky who can connect and encourage one another in the fight against this disease. Learn more about Lindi’s lung cancer survivor story. 

  • There is a need to raise awareness that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.
  • Many people still believe if you have lung cancer you deserve the diagnosis, which prevents survivors from reaching out.
  • There is a growing number of survivors being diagnosed even though they have never smoked. Radon being the leading cause in nonsmokers.
  • The mental and emotional strain of lung cancer plays a large role in a lung cancer patient’s journey and survival.
  • When diagnosed with lung cancer, it is important to have a community of support.
  • Sharing the stories of lung cancer survivors helps raise awareness of the disease and end the lung cancer stigma. 

It’s as much a psychological effect as it is a physical effect. And the first thing anybody wants to do when they are diagnosed is to ask somebody else…there are things that we [survivors] can answer that the public, and even our closest family members, can’t be for us.

Help Raise Awareness and Fight the Lung Cancer Stigma

  1. Help educate others that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, not just those who smoke.
  2. Understand the risk factors that can cause lung cancer and take action to eliminate those risks in your life and the lives of your friends and family.
  3. If you feel led, financially support lung cancer initiatives to help improve treatment options and survivorship for those living with lung cancer, such as Breath of Hope Kentucky, American Lung Association, BREATHE, CanSAR, or the Kentucky LEADS Collaborative.
  4. Help us advocate! Follow advocacy organizations on social media and share facts and information to help us raise awareness and educate others about how they can reduce risks in their own lives.

What are the Leading Risk Factors for Lung Cancer?

Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. For this reason, everyone should be aware of the potential dangers to their lung health. When most people hear of someone being diagnosed with lung cancer, they assume it was caused by a history of smoking. However, there are other causes that can affect our lung cells besides smoking and tobacco use. Knowing the leading risk factors for lung cancer will help you protect your lungs and participate with us in erasing the lung cancer stigma.

What is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is now the leading cause of cancer deaths amongst men and women in the world.  Also, it is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer. Every year, more than 235,000 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed in the U.S., along with nearly 132,000 deaths.

Leading Risk Factors for Lung Cancer - Lungs
Lung cancer is a disease in which abnormal lung cells continuously divide, destroying healthy tissue along the way. This abnormal cell division is also called a malignant tumor. Lung cancer can then metastasize, spreading to other parts of the body. Abnormal cell growth is often caused by harmful or radioactive substances that damage the lung when breathed, tobacco smoke being only one possible cause for lung cell damage. In fact, only 14 percent of the U.S. population smokes.

Though the percentage of people who are smoking is decreasing, lung cancer incidents and deaths are increasing because other causes of lung cancer are still impacting the population.

Oftentimes, lung cancer is not diagnosed until it has developed to a later stage due to a lack of awareness and early detection. A late-stage diagnosis often comes with a low chance of survival. Lung cancer can be hard to diagnose in the early stages with few initial symptoms and the lack of knowledge and awareness of the disease. 

Many people believe that if they do not smoke or use tobacco that they could never develop lung cancer. The early signs of the disease are hard to detect as is. When it is thought of as never being a possibility, the chances of being diagnosed in a later stage significantly increases. Therefore, being informed of the potential risk factors and causes of lung cancer could be the difference between life and death. Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.

Risk Factors of Lung Cancer

Leading Risk Factors for Lung Cancer
Lung Cancer - Smoking

Tobacco smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, those who smoke are approximately 30 times more likely to get lung cancer than those who don’t. Also, cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. Studies also show that the more cigarettes smoked per day and the more years a person has smoked greatly increases the likelihood of developing lung cancer.

Lung Cancer - Secondhand Smoke
Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke occurs when tobacco smoke fills an environment and is inhaled involuntarily. Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, 2.5 million nonsmokers died just by breathing secondhand smoke, according to the CDC. Secondhand smoke contains thousands of toxic chemicals that damage the lungs.

Hazardous Chemicals
Hazardous Chemicals

Exposure to certain hazardous chemicals and substances can cause damage to the lungs, which could result in lung cancer. Asbestos, uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and some petroleum products can be particularly dangerous to your lungs (learn more at the American Lung Association). The CDC states that some of these substances are far more dangerous than smoking tobacco. Certain jobs may be required to work with such chemicals; however, these chemicals could also be found in soil or older buildings due to a chemical spill. This type of contamination is often referred to as chemical vapor intrusion. Learn more about keeping your indoor air quality safe. 

Family Genetics - Lung Cancer
Family History

If your family members have been diagnosed with lung cancer, you may be more likely to develop the disease, as well. This could be based on living in or being exposed to the same environment and breathing the same level of air quality. If an environmental factor caused their diagnosis, there is a chance you could be at risk, too. Lung cancer could be contributed to members of a household being exposed to radon, cigarette smoke, and other hazardous elements that can cause lung cancer. Also, family history may play a role in the susceptibility of cell mutation

Lung Cancer - Radon
Radon Gas

Many individuals have never heard of radon – a colorless, odorless, tasteless, radioactive, naturally occurring gas. Yet, the EPA states radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. Over 21,000 people die from radon-induced lung cancer every year in the United States alone. Also, smokers exposed to elevated radon levels have a much higher risk of developing lung cancer. Learn more about the symptoms of radon gas poisoning on our blog. 

How does radon harm your lungs? Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is released from the breakdown of uranium in the ground. This gas can seep into your home, your office building, your schools, or any building for that matter through cracks and openings in the foundation. Once radon is present, it can then damage your lungs when breathed. The higher the level of radon in an indoor environment, the higher chances of damage to your lungs.

The EPA recommends installing a professional radon mitigation system if the radon level is 4.0 pCi/L or above. However, there is no safe level of radon. The first step in preventing your exposure to radon gas is to test.

Test your home in the Louisville or Lexington area or contact a certified radon specialist in your area. 

How do you reduce your lung cancer risk?

Protecting your lungs from the risk factors above is the best way to reduce your risk and prevent the developing lung cancer. Take these steps to keep your lungs healthy and safe:

  • Do not smoke.
    • You can decrease your risk of developing lung cancer by not smoking. 
    • Counseling, nicotine replacement products, or antidepressants can help a person quit smoking. 
  • Test your home and office for radon gas.
    • Radon-induced lung cancer is preventable through radon testing and mitigation.
    • Radon gas is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, so the only way to know if radioactive radon is in your home is to test.
    • You can schedule a professional radon test with a licensed and certified local radon professional to determine your radon exposure risk at home.
  • Avoid other indoor air pollutants
    • If you are in an environment or live with someone who smokes, talk to them about quitting smoking and the risks of developing lung cancer. 
    • If you are a smoker, do not smoke indoors or in cars to protect others around you.
    • If your job requires you to be around toxic chemicals, dust, or fumes take the necessary precautions and talk to your employer.
  • Live a healthy lifestyle
    • Keep your lungs and body healthy by exercising.
    • Those who eat fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of developing lung cancer.
    • A healthy lifestyle generally lowers your risk for developing cancer overall.
  • Get tested with a low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan
    • If you are 50 years or older and have a history of smoking, you should get screened with a low dose CT scan. 
    • If you have a job that puts you at elevated risk for lung cancer, an LDCT scan is also recommended for you. 
    • If you have been exposed to elevated levels of radon, talk to your doctor about getting a scan.

Lung Cancer Treatment

If you are currently or have been exposed to any of the risk factors for lung cancer, talk to your doctor. Take steps and preventative measures to reduce your risk and protect your lungs. Also, discuss the signs and symptoms of lung cancer with your primary care doctor if you think you are experiencing these symptoms.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee of life-long healthy lungs. It is important to talk to your doctor and advocate for your lung health. Early detection and prevention gives lung cancer patients the best chance at fighting the disease.

Key Points:

  • Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the U.S.
  • Smoking may pose the greatest risk, but it is not the only cause of lung cancer. There are other causes, such as exposure to radon and other hazardous air pollutants.
  • Screening at-risk individuals has the potential to dramatically improve lung cancer survival rates.
  • To reduce your risk of lung cancer, be aware of risk factors and take preventative measures. 
  • Test your homes and buildings for radon gas as one way to help prevent lung cancer.

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