Did you know that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths? It claims more lives than colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC) wants more research and more treatment breakthroughs in the fight against the deadly cancer.
Each new study or discovery about lung cancer brings new hope to cancer patients and their families. More research makes more survivors, says IASLC, and raising awareness is the first step.
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer develops when abnormal cells begin to grow uncontrollably in one or both lungs. The cells form tumors, usually in the cells that line the air passages.
The tumors can be either benign or malignant, and they block the lung’s main function of providing oxygen to the blood. When the tumors are malignant, they can also metastasize and spread to other areas of the body—such as the brain. When lung cancer becomes metastatic, it is usually not curable.
There are two main types of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for the vast majority of lung cancer cases. There are several sub-types of NSCLC, each originating from different types of lung cells.
The three main forms of NSCLC are:
- Adenocarcinoma—cancers that start in cells that secrete mucus and other substances. This is the most common form of lung cancer, accounting for about 40 percent of cases. It tends to grow slower than other forms of cancer, and is often caught in the early stages.
- Squamous cell carcinoma—cancers that develop in squamous cells, the flat cells that line the airways. Around 25 – 30 percent of all lung cancers are squamous cell carcinoma, and it most often linked to smoking.
- Large-cell carcinoma—cancer that grows and spreads quickly, making it harder to treat. It accounts for 10 – 15 percent of cases.
Treatment for NSCLC depends on the stage at which the cancer was caught. In early stages, surgery to remove the affected area may be enough. Based on individual cases, chemotherapy may also be recommended to reduce the chances of the cancer coming back.
Later stages of cancer are treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of several treatments. The more advanced or widespread a cancer is, the harder it is to treat and the worse the prognosis.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer
There are very few symptoms of lung cancer in the early stages, so it’s hard to catch early. People at higher risk of lung cancer should talk to their doctors about getting screened annually, since there isn’t enough information about the benefits of regular screening.
Anyone who experiences the following symptoms should see their doctor immediately for a full workup:
- Persistent coughing
- Coughing up blood, even a small amount
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Losing weight unexpectedly
Risk Factors of Lung Cancer
Smoking is by far the leading cause of lung cancer. But even being regularly exposed to secondhand smoke can raise your risk of developing lung cancer.
Other risk factors are exposure to radon gas, asbestos, and other airborne carcinogens, since our lungs are the first defense against these toxic substances.
Lastly, family history of lung cancer can also raise your risk of developing it yourself.
If you have one or multiple of these risk factors, discuss your options with your doctor. You may want to get screened annually, since some studies do show a significant benefit to regular screening. Medicare does cover annual low-dose chest CT scans for eligible beneficiaries.
If you smoke, you should also quit smoking as soon as you can. Even if you’ve smoked for years, quitting today can still reduce your risk of lung cancer! Every year that you’re smoke free reduces your risk more, to the point that a person who hasn’t smoked in 10 years has half the risk of dying from lung cancer than a person who’s still smoking.
The Great American Smokeout
Tomorrow, November 15, The American Cancer Society will host their annual “Great American Smokeout. It’s a 24-hour challenge to be completely smoke-free.
For more information, visit www.cancer.org/great-american-smokeout