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Paul Newman's Death Casts Spotlight on Lung Cancer

Lung cancer has been thrust into the spotlight again after the death of legendary actor and philanthropist Paul Newman at the age of 83.

Newman died Friday only a few months after pictures surfaced of him looking frail and thin as he was wheeled from the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, where he was said to be receiving treatment for lung cancer.

During Newman’s rise to fame in the 1950s, cigarette smoking was used in the movies and on television to convey masculinity, sophistication and sex appeal.

Late in his career, Newman — who at one time was considered a heavy smoker — famously quipped, “It's absolutely amazing that I survived all the booze and smoking and the cars and the career.”

It’s been reported that he quit smoking some 30 years ago.

But although stopping does help curb damage to your lungs as the years pass, the chance of getting lung cancer is never completely gone.

“The risk continues for at least 10 more years even after you’ve quit,” Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told FOXNews.com.

“Once lungs are damaged they don’t grow back,” he said. “It’s like brain tissue — once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

In fact, smoking is behind nearly 90 percent of lung cancer cases and is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. among both men and women.

“It’s a horrible way to go,” said Dr. Evan Sorett, a pulmonologist and director of critical care at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. “People have to be put on morphine, they are gasping to breathe. It’s a terrible death.”

Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that lung cancer accounted for more deaths than breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer combined.

But it isn't always cigarettes that lead to the disease.

“Eighteen percent of people who come down with lung cancer have never smoked,” Horovitz said. “And we do know that out of 18 percent, 80 percent of those people are women, so experts believe there may be some hormonal elements that may play a role in lung cancer as well.”

The National Cancer Institute defines lung cancer as cancer that forms in tissues of the lung, usually in the cells lining the air passages. The two main types are small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

Non-small cell lung cancer, the less aggressive of the two, is the most common type and accounts for 90 percent of lung cancer cases.

Small cell lung cancer (sometimes known as oat cell cancer), accounts for about 20 percent of cases, according to the American Lung Association.

Rick factors include:

— Smoking cigarettes or cigars, now or in the past

— Second-hand smoke

— Exposure to heavy metals and other industrial solvents

— Air pollution

Symptoms and Treatment

What’s scary about lung cancer is that symptoms don’t usually occur until the disease is in the advanced stages.

“For most people. if they wait until they have symptoms of lung cancer, then they are at very low probability of being cured,” said Horovitz. “The idea is to be followed regularly by a doctor, especially if you’re at high risk.”

Symptoms may include:

— A persistent cough

— Shortness of breath

— Chest pain

— Wheezing

— Weight loss

While there are several ways to treat lung cancer, the form of treatment chosen depends on the type of cancer and how far it has spread. Treatments range from surgery to chemotherapy and radiation. Often times, patients receive more than one kind of treatment.

“In the early stages, hopefully surgery can play a role, because surgery is your best chance for survival… especially if the tumor is stage one and if it hasn’t affected the lymph nodes or other structures,” said Horovitz.

If the cancer has spread too far, surgery may no longer an option.

“If there’s lymph node involvement, then chemotherapy would be the option and sometimes radiation, or both,” Horovitz added.

The NCI estimates that there will be more than 215,000 new cases of lung cancer this year and more than 161,000 people will die as a result.

That is the equivalent of a Boeing 747 crashing every day, Sorett said.

“If that was on the front page of The New York Times, it would get people’s attention,” he said. “But it’s not, and it doesn’t seem to make people stop smoking. That’s the only way to cure it. If it were up to me, I’d outlaw the sale of tobacco.”