What you don’t know can kill you?
Human have a perplexing tendency to fear rare threats such as shark attacks while blithely ignoring far greater risks like unsafe sex and an unhealthy diet. It’s hard to believe, but Lung Cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung Cancer is a malignant growth or tumor arising from the lungs. It is among the most frequent causes of cancer in both males and females, and unfortunately has a relatively poorer prognosis (compared to breast cancer or colon cancer for example), thus it is frequently cited as the number one cause of mortality among all cancers.
What are the risk factors for Lung Cancer?
Cigarette Smoking causes approximately 90 percent of lung cancers. Just remember that in each stick of cigarette, there are around 6,500 chemicals that should not be taken into the body (like arsenic, tar, etc.) and that about 35 to 75 of those substances are potentially carcinogenic. Thus smokers have 15 to 30 times higher risk of developing lung cancer compared to non-smokers. Second hand or side-stream smoke is another strong risk factor – even if a person is not smoking, regularly being exposed to a person or persons who are smoking gives them a significant risk of also developing Lung Cancer. Other risk factor would include strong family history of lung cancer, and occupational or environmental exposure to radiation and diesel exhaust.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms would usually depend on where in the lungs the tumor is growing. If it is centrally location (i.e. near the trachea or main trunks of the airways of the lungs (the hilum where the major segments or bronchi arise), the patient would frequently manifest with cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, even blood tinged sputum. If the growth is developing peripherally, it may take some time before symptoms develop, as it is not causing obstruction of the major airways. Hence, frequently those tumors arising from the periphery are discovered late (i.e. already metastatic, already large and of a higher stage.
What are the type and Stages of Lung Cancer?
It could be too technical to describe each type of lung cancer (as it is based on histology – i.e. adenocarcinoma, large cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, small cell carcinoma), but suffice to say that we basically divide it into either non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) or small cell lung cancer (SCLC) The reason for classifying them as such is because NSCLC has a relatively better prognosis (i.e a person with NSCLC is expected to survive for at least a year even without treatment and at least two years with adequate treatment, compared to SCLC where without treatment survival is just around four to six months, even around four six chemotherapy many of them would succumb in around a year ago or so).
As for staging, again it would be too technical to describe each stage, but suffice to say that a Stage 1 or 2 cancer has the best prognosis it treated early – surgery would be curative for a Stage 1 lung cancer, while chemotherapy plus/minus radiotherapy would frequently be necessary for a Stage 2 or 3 lung cancer; and for a Stage 4 lung cancer – meaning that it has already metastasized to other parts of the body (frequently the liver, brain and bones), frequently any treatment would just be palliative in nature.
What are the treatment available?
Surgical removal of the tumor and surrounding lung segments (thoracotomy with lobectomy or pneumonectomy) for early stage lung cancer. For those who are not surgical candidates (tumor cannot be excised fully, higher stage disease or if there are medical contraindications to surgery – heart failure, ill health, uncontrolled diabetes, etc) then chemotherapy with or without radiotherapy is done. In some instances, combination of treatments are utilized (i.e. surgery first to remove the main tumor, then undergo chemotherapy or radiotherapy to clear out residual tumor).
More recently, a new type of treatment has become available called targeted therapy – targeting specific genes or proteins unique to the cancer to slow down and kill of the cancer cells.
What are the side effects of the treatment?
When side effects are mentioned, frequently the focus would be on chemotherapy. Remember that cancer cells divide and grow very rapidly, and this rapid growth is the target of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, chemo drugs would and could affect all cells – normal or otherwise, thus the potential for side effects.
Among the common side effects would include nausea, anorexia, hair loss, body malaise, and asthenia. Less common side effects include anemia, agranulocytosis – significant decline in white cell count, and higher risk of infections like pneumonia – as chemo may potentially also kill off and weaken immune cells. However most of the side effects can be abated by the use of less toxic chemo drugs and other medications.