While smoking remains the primary cause of about 90% of all lung cancers, it is not the only one. Certain risk factors may increase your odds of developing lung cancer, but some people still get the disease without a known cause. The more risk factors you have, though, the greater your likelihood of developing lung cancer.
Some factors cannot be controlled, such as age, gender, or ethnicity. Almost all lung cancer is found in people over the age of 40, but it is most common in men after the age of 65. African-Americans, both men and women, carry a substantially higher risk of lung cancer than Caucasians. It should be noted that although smokers carry the biggest burden, non-smokers also are regularly exposed to airborne hazards that affect lung tissue and cause irritation and inflammation. According to the American Lung Association, exposure to the following can be a serious reason for concern:
- Secondhand Smoke—Smoke and carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) are inhaled into the lungs before they are absorbed into the bloodstream. Smokers regularly expose their lungs, and the lungs of those around them, to carcinogens that irritate and damage cells that line the respiratory tract. Long-term exposure to secondhand smoke also contributes to an increased risk of lung cancer.
- Radon—Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that occurs naturally in the environment. It comes up through the soil and enters buildings through small gaps and cracks. One out of every 15 homes in the United States is subject to radon exposure. People who have never smoked make up approximately 2,900 of the estimated 21,000 radon-related lung cancer deaths each year, and exposure to radon combined with cigarette smoking seriously increases your lung cancer risk. Radon gas levels in your home can be measured by a professional or information about home test kits and state programs is available on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website.
- Hazardous Chemicals—Exposure to hazardous chemicals like asbestos, uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and some petroleum products is especially dangerous for your lungs. People who work in the coal industry, construction, or who are exposed to by-products of combustion, may come into contact with harmful substances. If possible, try to find work in a different environment. If it is unavoidable, take steps to protect yourself from exposure. Check with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) or the Environmental Protection Agency about available regulations to help ensure a safe working environment.
- Particle Pollution—Particle pollution is a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe, such as exhaust smoke released from vehicles. These particles increase your risk of lung cancer.
- Genetics—A family history of lung cancer may greatly increase your odds of getting the disease. If a close relative has had the lung cancer, be sure to mention it to your doctor. While you cannot control the genes you are born with, you can limit exposure to other risk factors that can mitigate your chance of getting the disease.
Symptoms of lung cancer may differ depending on the location of the tumor or how long it has been growing. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:
- Coughing up blood—This includes bloodstained mucus. Coughing up blood can also be present with lung infections. A doctor can determine if there is cause for alarm.
- Hoarseness—A nerve in the chest that controls your vocal cords may stop working as the cancer grows, resulting in a hoarse voice.
- Increased frequency of infections—Fluid build-up in the lungs increases the frequency of lung infections like pneumonia or acute bronchitis.
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing—If cancer surrounds or causes pressure on the esophagus, the tube that moves food from the throat to the stomach, it may be difficult to swallow food and drinks.
The goal of early stage treatment is to remove as much of the cancer as possible, while preserving as much of the lungs and their function as possible. Additional treatment may help to prevent the spread or recurrence of cancer. The treatment plan will often include a combination of approaches based on the characteristics of the cancer, patient's age, general health, and prognosis.
Lung cancer is usually found in advanced stages, so treatment may focus on palliative care, managing symptoms caused by cancer and maintaining as good a quality of life as possible. Advanced cancer treatments can be difficult, so have an honest discussion about the risks and benefits before getting started. Talk to your doctor about counseling or support groups. They can be beneficial for you and your family. The healthcare team will be made up of a variety of health professionals including doctors, surgeons, nurses, and pharmacists. It is important to maintain contact with your medical team, adhere to recommended treatment, and go to any recommended appointments for best outcomes possible.
Lung cancer treatment may include:
- Lifestyle Changes
- Radiation Therapy
Existing treatment protocols have been established and continue to be modified through clinical trials. These research studies are essential to determine whether or not new treatments are both safe and effective. Since highly effective treatments for many cancers remain unknown, numerous clinical trials are always underway around the world. You may wish to ask your doctor about participating in a clinical trial. You can find out about clinical trials at the US National Institutes of Health website.
If you have concerns or are experiencing symptoms, please consult your healthcare provider immediately. Dr. Mark Currie of LewisGale Physicians can answer all of your questions regarding lung cancer and other diseases. You can call the practice at (540) 772-3411.