WHAT IS LUNG CANCER?
Lung cancer is cancer that occurs in the sponge-like tissue of the lungs, which form part of our respiratory system. Cancers that begin in the lungs are divided into two major types: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common type of lung cancer, and it generally grows and spreads more slowly. Small cell lung cancer is less common, grows more quickly, and is more likely to spread to other organs in the body.
WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS FOR LUNG CANCER?
Most people develop lung cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes. The likelihood that a person who smokes will develop lung cancer depends on the age at which smoking began, how long the person has smoked, the number of cigarettes smoked per day, and how deeply the smoker inhales. We do know that stopping smoking greatly reduces a person’s risk for developing lung cancer. Cigar and pipe smokers also have a higher risk for developing lung cancer than non-smokers. Even cigar and pipe smokers who do not inhale are at increased risk for lung, mouth, and other types of cancer. The chance of developing lung cancer is increased by exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) or second-hand smoke. With aggressive advertising aimed at Hispanics by the tobacco industry, we are experiencing a fatal shift in our behavior. Today young Hispanics are the group most likely to smoke. The second most important cause of lung cancer is radon. Radon is an invisible, odorless, and tasteless radioactive gas that is found naturally in soil and rocks. People who work in mines may be exposed to radon, and in some areas of the country it can be found in houses. There is an easy-to-use test kit to measure radon emission in your home. Other causes of lung cancer include exposure to asbestos, air pollution, and certain lung diseases (such as tuberculosis).
IS IT POSSIBLE TO PREVENT LUNG CANCER?
The majority of lung cancers may be avoided simply by not smoking. Not smoking is the most effective way to reduce your risk of lung cancer. Pre-cancerous cells usually return to normal if a person stops smoking. The sooner a person quits smoking, the better. Even if you have been smoking for many years, it’s never too late to benefit from quitting.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF LUNG CANCER?
- Persistent cough that doesn’t go away and gets worse over time.
- Constant chest pain that increases with deep inhalation.
- Coughing up blood.
- Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness.
- Recurrent episodes of pneumonia or bronchitis.
- Swelling of the neck and face.
- Loss of appetite and/or weight loss.
WHAT ABOUT EARLY DETECTION?
As with all cancers, early detection has a great impact on the success of treatment. When lung cancer is detected early, has not spread, and is in only one location, improved treatment has increased the survival rate to 49 percent. However, early detection of lung cancer is usually not possible because symptoms do not appear until the disease is at an advanced stage, making treatment less effective. The combined survival rate for all stages of lung cancer is 14 percent.
HOW IS LUNG CANCER DIAGNOSED?
If you are experiencing the symptoms of lung cancer, your health care provider will want to evaluate your medical history, smoking history, exposure to environmental and occupational substances, and family history of cancer. Your heath care provider will also perform a physical exam and may order a chest x-ray and other tests. If lung cancer is suspected, your doctor will request a sputum cytology (the microscopic examination of cells obtained from deep-cough samples of mucus in the lungs). In order to confirm the presence of cancer, the doctor must examine tissue from the lung, in which case a biopsy will be performed. If lung cancer is confirmed, further tests will be performed in order to determine the stage (or extent) of the disease, and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Lung cancer often spreads to the brain or bones. Knowing the stage of the cancer will help you and your health care provider to plan the most appropriate treatment.
WHAT IS INVOLVED IN THE TREATMENT OF LUNG CANCER?
Treatment depends on a number of things, including the type of lung cancer (non-small cell or small cell), the size, location, and extent of the tumor, and the general health of the patient. Many different treatments and combinations of treatments may be used to control lung cancer, and/or to improve quality of life by reducing the symptoms. Individuals who have non-small cell lung cancer may be treated in several ways. While surgery is the most common treatment, the choice of treatment depends mainly on the size, location, and extent of the tumor.
Because small cell lung cancer spreads quickly, and in many cases the cancer cells have already spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy is almost always used to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Treatment may also include radiation therapy aimed at the tumor in the lung or tumors in other parts of the body.