Lung cancer leads in cancer-related deaths in Utah, community works to reduce stigma

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According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 15 men and 1 in 17 women have a chance of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer is the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in Utah. (Made in Canva by Megan Brugger)

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Utah and the U.S., making up almost 25% of all cancer deaths nationally.

To put this in perspective, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. On average, there is a 1 in 15 likelihood of men developing the disease, with a 1 in 17 likelihood for women. These statistics include both smokers and nonsmokers, although there is a higher chance of cancer for those who do smoke.

Lung cancer in Utah: the facts

According to Utah’s Public Health Indicator Based Information System, 90% of lung cancer-related deaths are due to smoking. Public health programs have been put in place to reduce these chances, including Utah’s statewide Tobacco Prevention and Control Program. This program aims to prevent youth from starting to use tobacco, help tobacco users quit, eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke and reduce tobacco-related disparities.

While cigarette smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, it is not the only contributor resulting in the disease. Other causes include occupational or environmental exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, asbestos among smokers, some organic chemicals, radiation, air pollution and a medical history of tuberculosis or certain metals — including chromium, cadmium or arsenic. Genetics also play a factor, especially in youth who develop the disease.

Additionally, the Utah Department of Health has instated the Utah Cancer Action Network to reduce the burdens cancer brings. UCAN’s goal is to lower cancer incidence and mortality in Utah through prevention and control.

Lung cancer can be difficult to detect, as symptoms typically do not appear until the disease has advanced.

According to the American Cancer Society, people diagnosed with lung cancer are typically 65 years and older. The average age at diagnosis is 70, and it is rare for a person under the age of 45 to develop the disease.

Utah lung cancer rates have stayed consistent since 2000, averaging 24.98 cases per 100,000 people. Black or African American residents in Utah have a higher chance of developing lung cancer, with an average of 58.5 cases per 100,000 people.

In Utah County, lung cancer diagnoses average 16.1 cases per 100,000 people. In Tri County, the diagnoses average 38.4 cases per 100,000 people.

Lung cancer in Utah: the personal impact

Utah resident Alvin George Nichols passed away from lung cancer when he was 75 years old. He had idiopathic lung cancer, meaning there are no traceable causes of the disease.

His grandson, UVU student Jason Thompson, said Nichols never smoked, was not exposed to secondhand smoke and as far as he knows, was never around cancer-causing chemicals.

“The doctors really had no clue how he got it,” Thompson said.

Nichols’ doctors did, however, suspect he had the disease a year before his diagnosis. He passed away two and a half weeks later.

Thompson remains inspired by his grandfather, saying his grandfather did not change during the weeks after his diagnosis. “He always lived in the moment and never left things unsaid,” Thompson shared. “When his time came, he felt no need to apologize or make things up to people and was able to just be himself.”

Although Thompson was young when his grandfather passed away, his legacy lives on through him and his family.

“He inspires me to live life and just be me,” Thompson said.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute is a National Cancer Institute designated cancer research facility and hospital located in Salt Lake City. It is the only one of its kind in the Intermountain West.

Utah County resident Kristy Mears was diagnosed with kidney cancer in July, and more recently breast cancer. She received treatment at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and praised them for their work with her.

“They’re so kind and they have everything together. I mean, they know exactly what to do and who you need to see and what appointments you need to make,” Mears said.

When Mears was receiving her kidney cancer treatment, she said doctors found “a tiny spot on her lung.” They determined the spot was normal and doctors told her it is actually common because of pollution.

“Most people have something on their lungs because of pollution and what’s in the air these days,” Mears’ doctor told her.

Mears’ parents both had cancer so the doctors at Huntsman had her do genetic testing, which she says the institute is very big on.

“They’re very big on the genetic testing because that can also help with your treatment process,” she said.

Before her diagnosis, Mears recalled hearing so much about cancer and getting anxious — feeling in the back of her mind it would be in her future. When she did receive her diagnosis, she felt relief and was ready to tackle it.

She feels confident and has faith in the way cancer treatments are going with scientists making positive progressions.

BYU graduate Amanda Ritter’s grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, passing away from the disease in 2012.

Her grandmother, Kathy Egan, was a Sandy, Utah resident and a loved member of the community.

When Egan went in for an MRI on her shoulder, doctors found a spot on her lungs that was later determined to be lung cancer. She began four years of treatment, but managed it well, according to Ritter.

In 2012 the cancer spread to her liver and she passed away a few weeks later.

Ritter recalled having her senior prom that week, which ended up being a bittersweet moment between her and Egan.

“That was one of the only things my grandma actually physically reacted to and smiled about toward the end — finding out that I was at my prom and having a good night,” Ritter said.

She continued, “Knowing that made her happy was a really, really sweet thing.”

Egan was not a smoker, nor ever had been.

“It was just where the cancer happened to be in her body,” Ritter said.

Ritter said it is important to spread awareness about lung cancer, as it is not always related to smoking. She recalled her grandmother being worried people would “think she was a different person than she was” after her diagnosis, because of the stigma related to the disease.

“My grandma was the purest, most wholesome person,” she said. “People need to reduce the stigma around lung cancer more than anything.”

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