Lung cancer is one of the most preventable yet one of the most deadly types of cancer in the world. In order to reduce your risk of getting lung cancer significantly: Do Not Smoke Cigarettes! Ever! And, if you do smoke now, STOP! Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, among both men and women. Lung cancer alone kills more people every single year than colon, prostate, ovarian, and breast cancers combined. Obviously, people who smoke have the greatest risk of lung cancer, though lung cancer can also occur in people who have never smoked. The greatest risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes you have smoked and the length of time you have smoked. If you quit smoking now, even if you have smoked for years, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing lung cancer.
Like most cancers, lung cancer doesn’t cause problems or any symptoms in its earliest stages. Also, like most other cancers, this is what makes it so deadly.
Like most cancers, lung cancer doesn’t cause problems or any symptoms in its earliest stages. Also, like most other cancers, this is what makes it so deadly. When you start showing any symptoms, the cancer is usually so advanced that treatment becomes very difficult. And, like most other cancers, preventative measures and early screenings are the best way to treat lung cancer and even prevent it in the first place.
Signs and symptoms of lung cancer may include:
- A new cough that doesn’t go away: a cough associated with a cold or respiratory infection will go away in a week or two, but a persistent cough that lingers can be a symptom of lung cancer. Don’t be tempted to dismiss a stubborn cough, whether it’s dry or produces mucus.
- Coughing up blood, even a small amount: lung cancer can cause bleeding in the airway, which can cause you to cough up blood (hemoptysis). Sometimes bleeding can become severe. Treatments are available to control bleeding.
- Shortness of breath: people with lung cancer can experience shortness of breath if cancer grows to block the major airways. Lung cancer can also cause fluid to accumulate around the lungs, making it harder for the affected lung to expand fully when you inhale.
- Chest pain, bone pain, headache: advanced lung cancer that spreads to the lining of a lung or to another area of the body, such as a bone, can cause pain. Cancer that spreads can cause nausea, headaches, or other signs and symptoms depending on what organ is affected. Once lung cancer has spread beyond the lungs, it’s generally not curable. Treatments are available to decrease symptoms and to help you live longer.
Lung cancer screening is generally offered to people 55 and older who smoked heavily for many years and are otherwise healthy. If you have an increased risk of lung cancer, or if there is a reason to think you may have lung cancer, there are a number of tests that can look for cancerous cells and rule out other conditions. If you have a persistent cough, and are producing a lot of mucus with it (sputum), looking at the mucus under a microscope may show the presence of cancer cells. Also, a tissue sample (biopsy) may be done. This is a test that requires a bit of tissue from inside the lung to be examined for cancer cells. The most common and important test to detect lung cancer, however, are imaging tests. Not only are these test used to diagnose lung cancer, they also are used to treat the cancer depending on what stage the cancer is at.
These imaging tests include the following:
- X-ray: X-rays are a type of radiation called electromagnetic waves. X-ray imaging creates pictures of the inside of your body and the images show the parts of the body in different shades of black and white. The different shades are because different tissues absorb different amounts of radiation. Calcium in bones absorbs the most radiation from the x-rays, so bones look white on the x-ray film. Fat, body organs and soft tissue in the body all absorb different amounts of radiation and therefore, look different shades of grey. Air absorbs the very least, so lungs look black. If x-rays are performed on a person with lung cancer, the cancer cells, or lesions (tumors) will show up in the lung as grey or even white spots in the lungs.
- CT Scan: A CT scan (or CAT scan: Computerized Axial Tomography) is another imaging test. A CT scanner takes many x-rays of the lungs that are processed by a computer. The computer then puts all the x-rays together to create 3D (three dimensional) images of your lungs and chest. The images can then be “read” (looked at and studied) by health care professional to determine if any lung cancer lesions are present.
- MRI: An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is similar to a CT Scan in that it produces cross-sectional images of the lungs. Looking at images of the lungs in cross section can be compared to looking at the inside of a loaf of bread by slicing it. Unlike a CT Scan, a MRI does not use x-rays. Instead, it uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce very clear and detailed computerized images of the inside of the body. MRI is commonly used to examine the lungs to further determine the extent and stage of lung cancer.
- PET scan: A PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography) may be needed in the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. A CT scan creates a 3D picture of the lungs, but it may miss small tumors if part of the lung has collapsed or other irregularities are found in the lung structure. A PET scan goes beyond anatomy to show what is happening at a cellular level in the tissues of the lung. It can also show cancer cells before any structural changes are present. It is a valuable scan in properly diagnosing the stage of the disease and being able to focus treatment on cancers that are so small they do not show up on any other scan.
A diagnosis of lung cancer is initially overwhelming. With time you will find ways to cope with the distress and uncertainty, and, as you learn more about lung cancer, you will become more confident in your treatment decisions.