Lung Cancer Awareness Day was designated almost 20 years ago. But due to increased awareness of the disease and knowing the importance of recognizing the symptoms of lung cancer, November was designated as Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
Today, lung cancer causes more deaths than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. Unfortunately lung cancer is a complex disease, which means that it is hard to treat and understand.
Many thoracic surgeons like myself — doctors who focus on diseases of the lungs and chest — encourage patients to have a basic understanding of lung cancer as an important step in preventing lung cancer deaths.
There are two main types of lung cancer: small-cell lung cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer. Non-small-cell lung cancer is more common, accounting for about 80 percent of lung cancer cases.
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A lung tumor can be present without causing pain or discomfort, and many people with lung cancer don’t have symptoms until the disease is in its later stages. When symptoms are present, they can vary from person to person, but may include:
• a cough that worsens or does not go away;
• a lingering cough or “smoker’s cough”;
• pain in the chest;
• shortness of breath or wheezing;
• lung infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia;
• coughing up blood; and
• the presence of common ailments such as weight loss, loss of appetite, headaches, bone pain or fractures, and blood clots.
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, and secondhand smoke also has been shown to increase the risk for developing lung cancer.
In terms of additional risks, a family history of lung cancer may increase your risk, and men are more likely to develop lung cancer than women. Also, 2 out of every 3 cases of lung cancer are diagnosed in patients older than 65, with the average age at diagnosis being 71. Environmental factors such as exposure to air pollutants, asbestos, diesel exhaust and radon gas also can increase one’s risk of developing lung cancer.
One common misconception about lung cancer is that people who don’t smoke can’t get lung cancer. In reality, every year in America, more than 24,000 people who have never smoked die from lung cancer.
What can you do? Talk to your doctor about your risk factors, and stop smoking as soon as possible. There are medications and other forms of support available to help you to quit smoking. Also, have your home tested for radon gas, avoid secondhand smoke and limit exposure to other potentially harmful materials.
Recent studies have shown a 20 percent decrease in mortality from lung cancer with early screening. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends an annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography for adults 55 to 80 with a 30-pack-per-year smoking history who smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
Knowing that early detection and treatment practices offer the best chance for survival, Mount Nittany Medical Center is developing an early lung-cancer screening program.