Disco legend Donna Summer, 63, died Wednesday night, reportedly of lung cancer. As of press time, her family hadn’t released details about her illness, so it was unknown what type of lung cancer she had, and how long she may have been ailing.
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both women and men, killing more than 150,000 people per year -- more than colon, breast, ovarian and prostate cancers combined. In 2012, the group estimates, there will be about 226,000 new cases of lung cancer in the U.S.
Survival rates of people with lung cancer are low. Only about half of people diagnosed with early-stage non-small-cell lung cancer (the more common type) survive five years or more after diagnosis; many lung cancer cases aren't discovered until late in the disease's progression, however, because symptoms often don't arise until the disease is advanced. The risk of developing lung cancer increases with age, but it’s not unheard of for relatively young people to die from the disease. Joe Paterno died of lung cancer at 85; Peter Jennings at 67; Christopher Reeve's widow, Dana, at 44.
According to some news reports, Summer hoped to keep her medical condition under wraps. The reasons why are unknown -- but according to Rachel Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Lung Cancer Foundation of America, it’s not unusual for people with lung cancer to feel ashamed of having the disease, because it is so closely associated with a negative behavior: smoking.
"Many famous people who have lung cancer never disclose this fact, which speaks to the huge stigma of this disease," Schwartz wrote in an email. "The stigma of the disease is crushing and any announcement of a lung cancer diagnosis is often accompanied by an assumption that you somehow brought the disease upon yourself."
Smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer, causing about 90% of the cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But about 60% of new lung cancer patients either never smoked or haven’t smoked for many years, Schwartz said. Reeve was a non-smoker; Jennings a 20-year former smoker who admitted to relapses here and there. Second-hand smoke is a known carcinogen.
A Web search did not reveal if Summer smoked. News outlets reported Thursday that she believed she developed lung cancer after breathing in dangerous particles in the air in the aftermath of New York's Sept. 11 attacks.