Andre Braugher’s death highlights high risk of lung cancer in Black men

Andre Braugher’s death highlights high risk of lung cancer in Black men
24.12.2023

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Pulmonolgists say Braugher’s death at just 61 is a reminder “that really anybody with lungs can get lung cancer.

The Emmy award-winning actor Andre Braugher died last week at age 61 from lung cancer, just months after being diagnosed, his representative said. 

Braugher’s death underscores the prevalence of lung cancer in Black men, a group with the highest death rate of lung cancer in the country. According to the American Lung Association, one in 16 Black men will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetimes, and only 12% are likely to be diagnosed at an early stage. Black men also have lower lung cancer survival rates, partially because of the low rates of early diagnosis. 

While 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths in the U.S. are linked to cigarette smoking, 10% to 20% of lung cancers occur in people who have never smoked tobacco or have smoked less than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Braugher mentioned that he had given up smoking years ago. 

Some symptoms of lung cancer include a cough that never goes away, spitting up blood, shortness of breath, fatigue, pain in the chest area and weight loss. If lung cancer is caught at an early stage, treatments usually include surgically removing the cancerous tumor or stereotactic body radiotherapy, radiation that targets the cancerous cells, said Dr. Chi-Fu Jeffrey Yang, a thoracic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital.

While stage one, the earliest stage, is the ideal time to detect lung cancer, Yang said there are people “who are still living a really good life seven, eight years out after their diagnosis.” This is because of tremendous advancements in lung cancer treatments, such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy. 

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Nonsmokers who are diagnosed with lung cancer have most likely been exposed to certain environmental factors, such as pollution, said Yang, who is also an adviser at the American Lung Cancer Screening Initiative, an advocacy group dedicated to spreading awareness about the importance of early lung cancer screenings in high-risk patients. Other factors that increase risk in some people include exposure to fumes while cooking and their family history, he said.

Dr. Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, a national spokesperson for the American Lung Association a pulmonologist, agrees. “Every breath that you take, you are snatching the environment that surrounds you,” he said. Age is also a risk factor, he added.

But stigma co-exists with many lung cancer diagnoses. Yang said there is “often a lot of blame” placed on patients  because of the notion that only smoking causes the disease. He said that some of his own lung cancer patients tell people they have breast cancer instead, “because breast cancer doesn’t have that same stigma.”

The screening initiative has “been trying to emphasize that really anybody with lungs can get lung cancer,” Yang said.

There’s also a sense of fatalism about the disease, which also prevents many people from getting screened.

“They think that, ‘I’m smoking. I’m going to get lung cancer. I’m going to die from lung cancer. What is the point of even getting screened?’” he said. “It’s unfortunate because if you can catch lung cancer early, you can treat it early and actually have really, really good life afterwards.”

Preventing fatal health outcomes for Black men with lung cancer comes down to recognizing symptoms, adhering to early screenings, and cutting strict eligibility requirements for screenings, said doctors who spoke to NBC News.

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Research from the journal BMC Cancer in 2020 said low income and being underinsured also contribute to low screening rates. Black patients who are at a high risk for lung cancer also miss more exams and delay follow-up visits more often when being referred for a screening, additional research suggested.

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