Lung cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the lungs, but over time, it can spread to other parts of the body. As symptoms don't usually appear in the early stages of the disease, lung cancer is viewed as a stealthy killer. If you're at a high risk of lung cancer, annual lung cancer screenings can be lifesaving.
Who is at risk for lung cancer?
Anyone. However, certain things can increase your chances of getting lung cancer. But having a risk factor doesn’t mean that the cancer will develop at some point in your life. People may get lung cancer without having any risk factors, and those with one or more risk factors may not get it at all.
The chances of developing lung cancer increase with age. Most people diagnosed with the disease are 65 or older.
Changes to certain genes in the body may cause cells in the lungs to multiply and grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor. Sometimes, genetic mutations inherited from a family member with the disease can be a reason. Mutations can affect reproductive cells, passing them down from generation to generation.
Age and genetics are lung cancer risk factors that cannot be changed. Other risk factors that can be changed are as follows:
Are you a smoker? Tobacco smoke, which contains an array of carcinogens, is the leading cause of lung cancer. Carcinogens damage the cells lining the lungs and trigger changes in cell tissue. As your body has a powerful healing ability, it can repair some of the damage caused by smoking, but only if you give up the habit. Otherwise, the damage to your lungs can become permanent and irreparable. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends routine lung cancer screenings for individuals between the ages of 50 and 80 who are either former smokers or current smokers.
Involuntarily inhaling smoke from the burning end of a cigarette or the smoke breathed out by smokers has also been found to cause lung cancer. Asking family and friends who are smokers not to smoke in your house and choosing smoke-free restaurants and hotels can be helpful.
Exposure to carcinogens
Certain gases and substances present in your home or place of work can be carcinogenic and constant exposure to them can elevate lung cancer risk. They include radon, asbestos, arsenic, uranium and diesel exhaust.
Previous radiotherapy to the chest as a part of cancer treatment is a risk factor. High doses of radiation therapy can damage healthy cells and tissues near the treatment area.
A combination of indoor and outdoor air pollution causes seven million premature deaths every year, from lung cancer and acute respiratory infection, among other diseases. But the risk is much lower than that caused due to smoking.
There is some evidence pointing to the role of vaping as a lung cancer risk factor. Specifically, a weed-killing herbicide called acrolein in e-cigarettes may cause acute lung injury, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and lung cancer.
Symptoms of lung cancer
The common symptoms of lung cancer are:
- Chronic coughing
- Coughing up blood
- Persistent breathlessness
- Unexplained fatigue and weight loss
- A pain when breathing or coughing
These symptoms could be indicators of a different disease, but when you observe them, consult your doctor immediately.
Lung cancer treatment
There are two primary forms of lung cancer. About 80-85% are non-small cell lung cancer, and a less common but aggressive form is small-cell lung cancer, most commonly occurring in smokers. Treatment depends on the type of lung cancer, how far it has spread and the patient's health status.
If the cancer is confined to a small area, surgery may be the recommended route to remove some or all of the tumor. In case surgical removal is deemed risky based on your health condition, radiation therapy may be considered to destroy the cancer.
If the cancer is not caught early and spreads to distant areas of the body, chemotherapy may be given. Another form of lung cancer treatment is targeted therapy that uses drugs to slow the spread of specific cancer cells. Targeted therapy is generally used in conjunction with other treatments.
Lung cancer screening
Screening is a medical procedure or test to detect the presence of a disease. It is for people who haven't exhibited symptoms for that disease and seek to determine the likelihood of having it. Screening tests help identify cancers before symptoms appear.
Lung cancer screenings can catch the disease at a very early stage when it is most likely to be cured. The procedure is called low-dose computed tomography or a low-dose CT scan (LDCT). It is a painless, non-invasive procedure where you lie down on a table and an X-ray machine uses a low dose of radiation to create detailed images of your lungs.
Yearly screenings are recommended for people in the age group of 50 to 80 years who meet the following criteria:
- Are current smokers or former smokers who have quit in the past 15 years, and
- Have a 20-pack/year history
Note that lung cancer screenings do carry some risks, so talk to your doctor about your options. If you fall in the high-risk category, routine screenings can give you a sense of control, and in the event of a positive test, increase your chances of beating lung cancer.
Interested in quitting smoking?
It is always good to engage your primary care physicians in helping achieve your goals. There are also many resources available online to help you succeed. Check out CDC.gov/quit for more information.