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5 facts about lung cancer in Canada

For years, more Canadians have faced a lung cancer diagnosis than any other cancer. In 2020, it’s expected to continue to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in males and females combined. This year alone, about 29,800 Canadians – or 81 people every day – will hear the words, “you have lung cancer.”

To better understand the impact of lung cancer in Canada, we released the Canadian Cancer Statistics: A 2020 special report on lung cancer in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada. This report provides insights into incidence, mortality, survival and prevalence as well as important statistics on prevention, screening and disparities.

Find out what the key takeaways are and why they matter to us all.

1. Lung cancer is expected to be the leading cause of cancer death – causing more deaths than colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancers combined

Not only is lung cancer expected to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada this year, it is also the leading cause of cancer death. Lung cancer is expected to cause more deaths than the next 3 leading causes of cancer death (colorectal, pancreatic and breast) combined. About 1 in 4 of the estimated 83,300 cancer deaths in 2020 will be caused by lung cancer.

Although lung cancer survival in Canada is among the highest in the world, the 5-year-survival is still relatively low at only 19%.

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2. About 49% of lung cancer cases are detected at stage 4 when it has already spread to other parts of the body 

Cancer stage helps describe how much cancer is in the body, where it is, whether it has spread (metastasized), and where it has spread using a number from 1 to 4. Stage 1 cancer is usually small and hasn’t spread outside of where it started. Stage 4 cancer is when cancer cells have spread to other distant parts of the body – often, making it more difficult to treat.

For people diagnosed with lung cancer, nearly half of the cases are caught at a late stage when cancer has already spread beyond the lungs. In the 2020 special report on lung cancer, we learn about 21% of lung cancer cases are detected at stage 1, 8% at stage 2, 20% at stage 3 and 49% at stage 4 (the stage for 2% of cases is unknown).

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3. Lung cancer survival is 71% when diagnosed early at stage 1

When lung cancer is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are better. Survival is 71% when lung cancer is diagnosed at stage 1 but decreases to 5% when diagnosed at stage 4.

It’s important to get regular health checkups and see your doctor if you have any symptoms or are worried about your health. Knowing what is normal for you helps you notice changes. When you notice something different about your body, get it checked out sooner rather than later.

Although some people are being screened for lung cancer in Canada, there are currently no organized lung cancer screening programs. However British Columbia just announced the first organized lung cancer screening program in Canada last month with plans to start screening by spring 2022.

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4. About 86% of lung cancer cases are due to modifiable risk factors – making it one of the most preventable cancers 

There are things we eat, drink, breathe and do that affect our cancer risk. By making healthy choices and protecting ourselves where we live, work and play, we can reduce our risk for certain cancers – including lung cancer.

About 86% of lung cancer cases are caused by risk factors that we can change, making it one of the most preventable cancers in Canada.

While tobacco smoking has decreased dramatically over the last 50 years, tobacco is still the leading risk factor for lung cancer, accounting for about 72% of all cases in 2020. Other risk factors like physical inactivity, exposure to radon gas, asbestos and air pollution put Canadians at increased risk for lung cancer too.

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5. People with lower incomes have poorer survival outcomes for lung cancer

The more we understand about inequity and its impact on people affected by cancer, the better positioned we are to address it. With new data on income and other socio-economic factors, findings in this year’s special report on lung cancer reveal the disparity when it comes to lung cancer survival.

People with lower incomes are more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer at a late stage than people of higher incomes. Additionally, they often have poorer survival outcomes, even when they are diagnosed at the same stage as people with higher incomes.

The underlying issues for these inequities are explored further in the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer’s report, Lung cancer and equity: A focus on income and geography.

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With lung cancer continuing to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadians and the leading cause of cancer death in 2020, we all have a reason to care about the impact of this disease.

These key facts and other notable findings from Canadian Cancer Statistics: A 2020 special report on lung cancer provide important information that highlights the critical need for change. Working together, we can enhance lung cancer prevention efforts, implement organized lung cancer screening, improve treatment, increase access to support and treatment for all Canadians no matter their income or location, and reduce lung cancer stigma.

Learn more by reading the full report or viewing our downloadable, one-page infographic.