Not counting skin cancer, lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer, behind breast cancer for women and prostate cancer for men. However, even though lung cancer places second in diagnoses, it leads the pack in terms of cancer-related deaths. Every year, lung cancer kills more people than breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be around 234,030 new cases this year alone, and around 154,050 deaths. In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, this article looks at the risk factors, early detection, and prevention.
Lung Cancer Risk Factors
There are two types of risk factors for every disease: those you can’t change and those you can. Factors you can’t change are things like your family history or race. Of lung cancer’s changeable risk factors, the most common is tobacco smoke.
Researchers believe that around 80 percent of all lung cancer deaths are due to smoking tobacco, with pipe and cigar smoking considered nearly as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. Your risk rises with the amount you smoke and the length of time, i.e. packs per day and number of years. Smoking “light” cigarettes does not reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.
Secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke, also increases your lung cancer risk. Doctors estimate that around 7,000 people die every year from secondhand smoke. Other environmental risk factors include:
- Radon exposure: This naturally-occurring radioactive gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in America, and the leading cause among non-smokers.
- Asbestos exposure: Working in mills, mines, textile plants, or with certain industrial products that use asbestos significantly raises your risk of lung cancer. Asbestos exposure also causes another type of cancer called mesothelioma.
- Carcinogen exposure: The workplace may expose you to a variety of carcinogens known to cause cancer, including uranium, arsenic, silica, coal, and diesel. The EPA added guidelines to help protect workers, but recent government policy changes have weakened some of these protections.
It’s important to note that not everyone who has these risk factors will get lung cancer, they just make it more likely someone will develop the disease. Also, some people get the disease even when they have no known risk factors.
Lung Cancer Signs and Symptoms
It can be difficult to diagnose lung cancer early, because many of its symptoms mimic those of long-time smoking. However, early detection improves survival rates dramatically. If you notice any of the following signs, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
- A lingering/worsening cough
- Chronic chest pain that worsens when you cough, laugh, or breathe deeply
- Coughing up blood or a rust-colored phlegm
- Losing weight or your appetite
- A hoarse voice
- Chronic fatigue or weakness
- Being short of breath
- Wheezing when you breathe
- Recurring lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia
Diagnosing lung cancer early helps you begin treating the disease before it spreads. Unfortunately, many people don’t notice symptoms until the cancer has already spread. Common symptoms that the disease has spread to other organs include:
- Bone pain, particularly in the hips and back
- Changes to the nervous system, such as balance issues, headaches, weakness or tingling in the extremities, and seizures
- Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Lumps just under the skin’s surface
Most of these symptoms have a cause other than lung cancer, but don’t let that stop you from talking to your doctor. Again, early detection is vital to successful treatment.
How Can You Prevent Lung Cancer?
The best way to prevent lung cancer is to avoid the risk factors. Number one, of course, is not smoking tobacco. Even if you have a history of smoking, though, it isn’t too late. Quitting smoking reduces your cancer risk, as well as your risk for a variety of chronic conditions.
In addition, limit your exposure to secondhand smoke and the other carcinogens listed above. Finally, researchers believe that eating a healthful diet helps reduce cancer risk, particularly one rich in fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, scientists discovered that supplements do nothing to reduce your risk. In fact, some evidence exists that certain supplements, such as beta-carotene, actually increase cancer risk.
Lung Cancer Screenings Covered by Medicare
Researchers recommend a lung cancer screening known as LDCT: low-dose computed tomography (CT). These scans were more effective than chest x-rays at discovering abnormalities within the lungs. Researchers recommend yearly LDCT scans for people considered high risk for lung cancer. Evidence shows that these patients are 20 percent less likely to die from lung cancer. In addition, they were 7 percent less likely to die from any other cause.
LDCT scans do have one downside, and that’s the fact that they find other abnormalities as well (hence the 7 percent reduced death rate overall). Around 25 percent of LDCT scans find abnormalities that further testing reveals were not cancerous. All research conducted to date has been on people with a history of smoking.
If you meet the requirements, Medicare Part B covers a yearly LDCT screening. To qualify, you must meet all of the following conditions:
- Aged 55 to 77
- Do not have signs or symptoms of lung cancer
- Either smoke currently or quit within the last 15 years
- Have the equivalent of a “30 pack year” smoking history, i.e. smoke one pack/day for 30 years or two packs/day for 15 years
- Have a written order from their primary doctor
Your provider must first explain the benefits and risks of the LDCT scan to help you determine whether you wish to proceed. If you do, your cost is zero, assuming your provider accepts assignment.
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