November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, making it a good time to take a deeper look at the disease and its significant impact on individuals, employers, and health plans.
The American Association for Cancer Research cites lung cancer as the most common cause of cancer death—not just in the U.S., but also worldwide. It’s considered so deadly that it’s responsible for more deaths in this country than colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and pancreatic cancer combined.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that over a quarter of a million Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2022. Only about 23% are expected to live to the 5-year survival milestone.
This means there’s still a significant need for more awareness of modifiable risk factors, prevention steps, diagnosis efforts, treatment, and survivorship support. Here are 3 facts to keep top of mind during Lung Cancer Awareness Month—and every other month, too.
Smoking is the #1 risk factor for lung cancer
There are several risk factors at play with lung cancer, including family history, secondhand smoke, and exposure to environmental toxins like radon, asbestos, and diesel exhaust. But by far, the biggest issue is cigarette smoking.
Smoking is linked up to 90% of lung cancer deaths, and people who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than non-smokers. Even smoking just a few cigarettes a day or smoking occasionally can increase risk. The longer someone smokes and the more cigarettes they smoke each day, the higher the risk level becomes.
Smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer, either. Smoking can lead to cancer anywhere in the body, including the mouth, throat, stomach, colon, rectum, liver, pancreas, larynx, kidney, bladder, and cervix.
Plus, people who are treated for lung cancer are at increased risk for a second cancer, especially if they continue to smoke.
The costly—and sometimes invisible—impact of lung cancer can be staggering
This type of cancer can be devastating for families, both emotionally and financially.
In fact, one report found that patients diagnosed with lung cancer are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy compared to those without cancer. This was due, in part, because at least half of patients with lung cancer already have advanced disease when diagnosed, which means treatments need to be more aggressive and expensive.
Those costs impact employers and health plans, too. The financial burden of cancer care is expected to continue to increase, particularly for those diagnosed with lung, breast, leukemia, and prostate cancers.
In terms of specific costs, lung cancer is one of the cancer types that tends to have chemotherapy side effects that require additional healthcare. On average, over $17,000 per person is spent on just managing these side effects alone, in addition to greater costs like hospitalization and treatment.
For employers specifically, there are also indirect costs with lung cancer when it comes to productivity, use of PTO, and presenteeism. These can be hard to track but can certainly be felt when it comes to an organization’s bottom line.
Lung cancer affects Black people more
Black Americans, specifically Black men, are more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer and die from the disease than their White counterparts.
One confounding variable has been the use of menthol cigarettes—smoked by about 85% of Black smokers—which researchers suggest makes quitting more difficult. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed restrictions on menthol-flavored tobacco products, the tobacco industry is, of course, fighting hard against it.
Until these restrictions are in place, there’s considerable need to address menthol cigarette effects among Black smokers specifically. For example, while these smokers attempt to quit at rates equal to, or higher than, other groups, they’re less successful.
Most likely, that’s because research has found menthol creates a chemical in the brain that makes them more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes.
How can you promote Lung Cancer Awareness Month?
Taking advantage of the awareness campaigns already in swing could go a long way toward helping employees and members who still smoke.
Here are some strategies to consider:
- Tailor materials for African Americans that talk about their higher level of risk for lung cancer, especially with menthol.
- Gear campaigns based on the state your employees or members live, to make statistics more meaningful.
- Launch a campaign that nudges tobacco users to sign up to see more about quitting—for example, emphasize that they don’t have to set a quit date to move toward that goal.
No matter what you implement, any steps toward reducing tobacco use among your population are important. Not only can this effort help to reduce risk, but it also makes for a healthier (and less costly) workforce and member base.