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The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center

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Frequently Asked Questions

Lung Cancer Prevention and Treatment:

Answers from Dr. Richard Battafarano, Director of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Johns Hopkins

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women. More people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. However, early detection and advanced treatment options offer hope to lung cancer patients. 

Dr. Richard Battafarano, Director of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Johns Hopkins answered questions from followers in a recent Facebook chat:

Q. Is there a cure for lung cancer?

A. Historically, there has been a lot of pessimism associated with a lung cancer diagnosis. However, thanks to advances in early detection and treatment, there are many reasons to be optimistic if a patient develops lung cancer.

Learn more about promising new lung cancer research.

Q. If I don’t smoke but I live with a smoker, how can secondhand smoke affect me?

A. Secondhand smoke is harmful for a number of reasons. It can increase your chances of developing chronic bronchitis and other upper respiratory conditions. In terms of lung cancer, breathing in secondhand smoke does increase your cancer risk slightly. However, you can minimize this risk by asking others to smoke outside. 

Q. If I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), what are my chances of developing lung cancer?

A. Cigarette smoking causes injury to the lungs that can lead to both COPD and lung cancer. Doctors cannot predict what your specific chances are for developing lung cancer. Talk to your physician about lung cancer screening, especially if you are 55 years of age or older and have a history of smoking.

Q. I am a nonsmoker, but I have a history of bronchitis and pneumonia. I’ve been on steroids and antibiotics to treat these conditions. Does my medical history increase my risk for developing lung cancer?

A. The most accurate way to examine persistent upper respiratory symptoms like these is through imaging scans. A chest X-ray or a chest CT scan can give physicians detailed images of your lungs. This helps your doctor determine if lung cancer is causing your symptoms. Talk to your doctor about scheduling imaging tests.

Q. I stopped smoking and use e-cigarettes and vaporizers instead. I use a low dose of nicotine. Could this also be harmful?

A. There is much debate about the pros and cons of e-cigarettes, and research is ongoing. Read more about the e-cigarette debate.

Q. What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

A. Common symptoms of lung cancer include a cough that does not go away, chest pain and hoarseness. Each individual may experience symptoms differently. Talk to your physician if you have any of these symptoms. Learn more about lung cancer.

Q. I don’t smoke—am I still at risk for lung cancer?

A. Approximately eight percent of all lung cancer occurs in patients who never smoked.

Many patients who never smoked and developed lung cancer have specific genetic mutations that cause the cancer to develop. There are specific tests that can identify these mutations. Once doctors identify the mutation, they can use medicines to target these mutations as part of the lung cancer treatment.

Q. Is there a connection between pleurisy and lung cancer?

A. The pleura is the membrane that surrounds the lungs. Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura. Typically, pleurisy is associated with developing pneumonia and not cancer. However, if your pleurisy pain persists, your physician should perform a full evaluation to determine the cause.

Q. Is there a genetic risk of lung cancer? If my parents had it, does that increase my chances of developing it?

A. If your parents had cancer, then you have an increased risk of developing any type of cancer over the course of your lifetime. It is important to undergo regular screenings, including mammograms, Pap tests, prostate exams and colonoscopies as part of your regular care.

If you or any of your siblings are smokers, the single most important thing to do is to stop smoking now. If your parents had lung cancer and you are a smoker, you may be a candidate for lung cancer screening. However, if you are not a smoker, then you do not need regular lung cancer screening. Learn more about recommended lung cancer screening.

Q. I have asthma – does that increase my risk of developing lung cancer?

A. If you have asthma that is not associated with cigarette smoking, then you are not at higher risk for lung cancer. Research has not identified asthma patients as having a higher lung cancer risk.

Q. What is AAT deficiency?

A. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is a condition that increases your chances of developing lung disease. If you have AAT deficiency and smoke as well, your risk increases further.

AAT is a protein made in your liver. It travels through your blood, protecting your organs, including your lungs. However, in people with AAT deficiency, the proteins are not the correct shape. Instead of traveling through your blood, they get stuck inside your liver. Without the protection of the AAT proteins, your risk of lung disease increases. AAT deficiency is an inherited condition, meaning it passes from parent to child. If you have AAT deficiency, it is important to speak with your physician about your lung cancer risk.

Describe your symptoms in detail so your doctor can determine the best possible treatment plan for your specific situation. While there is no cure for AAT deficiency, there are treatments. Your physician will determine your treatment plan based on the type of disease you develop.


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More About Lung Cancer

Learn more about lung cancer in the Johns Hopkins Health Library.