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How much do you know about the risks and symptoms of Lung Cancer?

Published: 31 Jul 2019

1st August is World Lung Cancer Day, one of the most common cancers worldwide, claiming more lives yearly than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. It is estimated that lung cancer accounts for nearly one in five cancer deaths globally. 

The problem with this type of cancer is that early state symptoms can easily be mistaken for something else, and by the time the patient seeks treatment the disease is already advanced.  If you or anyone you know is worried about a persistent cough, chest or breathing problems, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible. The earlier lung cancer is found, the easier it is to treat, and the higher the survival rate.

The Facts 

Facts change from country to country – but these stats will give you an indication of how widespread this disease is:

The best way to help reduce your risk of lung cancer

Stop Smoking - The best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer is not to smoke and to avoid breathing in other people’s smoke.

If you stop smoking before cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue gradually starts to repair itself. No matter what your age or how long you've smoked, quitting may lower your risk of lung cancer and help you live longer.

Eat healthily - Some evidence suggests that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may help protect against lung cancer in both smokers and non-smokers. But any positive effect of fruits and vegetables on lung cancer risk would be much less than the increased risk from smoking.

Get your home tested for radon - We all breathe in radon every day, usually at very low levels. However, some houses, where radon is present in the ground, can have dangerously high levels. If you are worried you can have your home tested and treated if necessary.

Follow health & safety procedures in the workplace - Do you work in a job where cancer-causing chemicals are used?  If you do, your employer should give you a full health & safety briefing along with all the necessary equipment and clothing to reduce your risk. 

Take regular exercise - Physical activity may reduce the risk of lung cancer in current and former smokers. One study showed that people with a high level of physical activity were 23% less likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than women with a low physical activity level. 

The symptoms

Lung cancer begins in the lungs and may spread to lymph nodes or other organs in the body, such as the brain.  Conversely, cancer from other organs may spread to the lungs. 

Unfortunately, symptoms usually don’t appear until the disease is already at an advanced stage. Even if lung cancer does cause symptoms, many people mistake them for other problems, such as an infection or long-term effects from smoking, which delays diagnosis.

The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

If lung cancer spreads to distant organs, it may cause:

Although most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than lung cancer, if you have any of these problems it’s important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated.

Screening programs  

Screening programs differ widely from country to country – so check out what's available where you live online. 

In the US - The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends yearly lung cancer screening with LDCT scans for current and ex-smokers with a 30 pack a year history, aged 55 to 74 years old, are in fairly good health.

In the UK - There is currently no nationwide screen program for lung cancer in the UK.  However, in February 2019 the NHS announced that it would be trialing mobile lung cancer scanning facilities in 10 areas with the highest death rates from lung cancer.  Those most at risk will be invited to attend an MOT appointment for their lungs and an on the spot chest scan. If successful the plan is to phase it in across the entire country.

Diagnosis

Tests used to look for lung cancer may includes:

Sputum cytology - a sample of mucus you cough up from the lungs (sputum) is looked at under a microscope to see if it contains cancer cells. The best way to do this is to get early morning samples from you 3 days in a row.

Chest x-ray - if you have symptoms that might be due to lung cancer, this is often the first test your doctor will do. Plain x-rays of your chest can be done at imaging centers, hospitals, and even in some doctors’ offices. If something suspicious is seen, your doctor may order more tests.

Computed tomography (CT) scan - uses x-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of your body. Instead of taking one picture, like a regular x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you while you lie on a table. A computer then combines these pictures into images of slices of the part of your body being studied.

MRI Scan - produces images that allow doctors to see the location of a lung tumor and/or lung cancer metastases and measure the tumor’s size. An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body.

You may also undergo a procedure to collect tissue and fluids to test for lung cancer:

Treatment

There are two main types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. The name refers to what the cancer cells look like under a microscope - non-small cell lung cancer being the more common.

If lung cancer is diagnosed, other tests are carried out to find out how far it has spread through the lungs, lymph nodes, and the rest of the body. The type and stage of lung cancer tell doctors what kind of treatment you need.  

Lung cancer is treated in several ways, depending on the type of lung cancer and how far it has spread. People with non-small cell lung cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy or a combination of these treatments.

People with small cell lung cancer are usually treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

If you are diagnosed with lung cancer don’t despair; treatments have advanced in the last few years.  Stephen Harrow is a consultant clinical oncologist and lead clinician for radiotherapy research at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre.

“Lung cancer is not as hopeless a diagnosis as it was even a few years ago,” Stephen explains.  “We have access to brand new specialized radiotherapy equipment that has enabled us to develop and implement techniques to treat lung cancer more aggressively where previously we may only have been able to offer palliative treatment.”

If you’re fighting lung cancer, please share your thoughts and experiences within the Chemotherapy Support Group. You’ll find thousands of extremely supportive people, who understand exactly what you are going through - because they've been there themselves.


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