Of all the possible long term risks associated with smoking, lung cancer is one of the best known. And lung cancer is such a talked-about risk of smoking for a reason: not only is it a very common link, it’s also one of the most serious.
Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for lung cancer. About 174,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year, about 85 to 90 percent of which happen to people who had long term exposure to tobacco smoke. Although most of these people are active smokers at the time they’re diagnosed, some are also former smokers. Cigarette smoke contains more than 60 chemicals that are known to cause cancer.
People may think that only smokers get lung cancer, but it’s not true. The remaining 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer cases occur in people who have other risk factors, such as genetic factors, exposure to asbestos or radon, and even long term exposure to secondhand smoke.
Signs and Symptoms
When you have lung cancer, generally you know that something is wrong. One of the most common symptoms is a new cough or else a cough that just won’t go away. Other signs can possibly include the following:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty swallowing
- Coughing up blood
- Swelling of the face or neck
- Frequent respiratory infections
Diagnosing lung cancer is not always as easy as it seems like it should be. Because some of the lung cancer symptoms can also be the same as symptoms of other respiratory illnesses, doctors may not run the necessary diagnostic tests right away. Some of the diagnostic tests used to determine lung cancer include lung biopsy, sputum cytology and positron emissions tomography, or PET, scan.
Biopsies of lung tissue can be performed using a variety of methods. One of the original methods, called mediastinoscopy, required a small surgical incision made in the neck by the breastbone so that a scope could be inserted to collect tissue for biopsy. Today other biopsy methods are used more frequently, but mediastinoscopy is still used when other methods don’t work or provide unclear results.
Other methods for biopsy include computerized tomography (CT), echocardiography and bronchoscopy, each of which uses technology to guide a biopsy needle for tissue removal.
Some patients with lung cancer also accumulate fluid between their lungs and their chest wall, which can be extremely painful. Doctors can remove this fluid and find out why it’s there using a procedure called thoracentesis.
Stages of Lung Cancer
When doctors talk about cancer, they talk about it in stages, one through four. Stage one lung cancer is limited only to the lungs. In stage two and three, the cancer is confined to the lungs and possibly the lymph nodes. In stage four, the cancer has spread outside of the lungs and to other parts of the body. Metastasized is another word for cancer that spreads. As the stages of cancer progress, the cancer becomes less treatable.
Treatment and Outlook
Treatment for lung cancer includes using surgery to remove the tumors, then using a combination or radiation and/or chemotherapy.
Surgery is most often performed to remove cancerous areas when cancer has been diagnosed early enough and has not yet spread to the rest of the body, or metastasized. Patients also have to be generally healthy enough and still have adequate lung function to be able to tolerate surgery. Surgery removes either a partial lobe, full lobe or an entire lung, depending on the extent of the cancer. Cure rates for small lung cancers are around 80 percent, but unfortunately most patients have a later recurrence even when the cancer is totally removed at early stages.
Chemotherapy is another common treatment. Chemotherapy uses very powerful medications to kill cancer cells in your body, and may be given either orally or intravenously. Side effects from chemotherapy are well known and include hair loss, weight loss and vomiting. Chemotherapy can be used either by itself, which is most effective for small cancers, or in combination with other treatments like surgery. Going through chemotherapy does not usually cure cancer, but it can slow down or stop the spread of cancer.
Radiation uses highly powerful X-rays to destroy cancer cells. Since radiation is rarely powerful enough to treat cancer alone, it is usually used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy or both. Radiation therapy is also used as an alternative when patients are too weak to undergo surgery. It can also be used to make patients more comfortable by shrinking tumors that make swallowing difficult or block airways and make it hard to breathe.
Doctors can also prescribe a variety of extremely powerful medications that are designed specifically to treat pain associated with cancer. Some of these medications include narcotic pain relievers like codeine, morphine and synthetic opiates like Oxycontin. Steroids like Prednisone may be prescribed to reduce painful swelling, and antidepressants can also be prescribed to reduce pain and anxiety. In states where medical marijuana is legal, many patients also find relief from this treatment.
The success rate of treatment for lung cancer depends greatly on how early the cancer is discovered. Because of the fact that lung cancer is often undiagnosed until later in the course of the disease, the chances are greater that the cancer will have spread to other parts of the body. Early diagnosis is the key that can make a difference in survival.