Out of all cancers, lung cancer causes the most deaths. It’s currently responsible for 1 in 5 cancer deaths, and carries a five year survival rate of just 14% (or even less for more advanced diagnoses).
These are alarming statistics.
Many people don’t realise that lung cancer is not a ‘smoker’s disease’ – non-smokers are also at risk. Although smoking does increase your risk, it is possible to develop lung cancer even if you have never smoked in your entire life.
With the average Australian carrying a 1 in 18 chance of developing lung cancer before the age of 85, it’s important to be aware of the facts. In this article I, Dr Rob Paterson, will give you an overview of lung cancer, including risks, symptoms to watch out for, and where to get further advice.
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer is a malignant tumour in the tissue of one or both lungs. It develops when abnormal cells start to form and multiply uncontrollably. Over time, these tumours start to affect normal lung functioning.
There are two types of lung cancer:
Small cell carcinoma – Also known as ‘oat cell’ carcinoma due to the shape of its cells, this type of cancer usually grows in the main airways – or bronchus. This type of cancer is strongly linked with cigarette smoking. It is attributed to around 15% of lung cancers, and is quite aggressive. It spreads quickly yet shows few early symptoms.
Non small cell carcinoma – The remaining forms of lung cancer form this group, which occur in the cells that line the airway passages into the lungs (the bronchi). Non small cell carcinomas have a slightly better prognosis, as they develop slower.
Risk factors for developing lung cancer
Cigarette smoking is the main cause of lung cancer. Up to 9 out of 10 cases of lung cancer are directly caused by smoking. The duration and volume of a smoking habit is the strongest determinant of risk, with lung cancer occurring most in adults between 40 and 70 years of age who have smoked for at least 20 years.
However, lung cancer does also occur in non-smokers. The exact reasons for this are unclear; however environmental factors such as second-hand smoke, smog, long term exposure to wood smoke (which contains many carcinogens), workplace carcinogens, or even possibly scarring from lung inflammation are all believed to potentially play a role.
Signs and symptoms
There are currently no screening processes for lung cancer. So it’s important to be aware of your body, and seek medical advice if you notice the following common symptoms:
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- A persistent cough or blood stained mucus
- Pains in the chest when taking a deep breath or coughing
- Recurring chest infections such as pneumonia
- Hoarse voice or difficulty swallowing
It’s important to note that these symptoms are not necessarily signs of lung cancer, but can be caused by other factors, so see your GP for a professional assessment.
Lung cancer is divided into stages depending on how much it has spread. So there is no universal treatment – it depends on your individual case. For some people, several treatments may be used together for the best result.
Treatment options may include:
- Surgery to remove the affected part of the lung (a lobectomy), or the entire lung (a pneumonectomy).
- Radiotherapy to target and kill cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy to stop cancer cells from multiplying. This treatment is most effective for small cell carcinoma.
- Targeted therapy where specialised drugs block the growth and spread of cancer by acting on cancer-specific molecules.
- Immunotherapy which uses the body’s own natural defences against cancer cells by boosting the immune system’s infection fighting agents such as T-cells and interferons.
The single best way to avoid lung cancer is simply not to smoke. Furthermore, stay away from second-hand smoke whenever possible.
It’s never too late to quit smoking. The younger your age when you quit the better, but stopping smoking at any age will greatly improve your chances at a lung cancer free life. Tobacco smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, including over 70 carcinogens known to cause cancer.
The health benefits of quitting are immediate, and increase the longer you stay away from cigarettes. After ten years of stopping your lung cancer risk is less than half of a smoker.
Where to get further advice
If you have concerns about your lung health, I recommend you speak to your GP for a referral to see myself, Dr. Rob Paterson, or one of our qualified and caring Oncologists at Hunter Valley Oncology.
Our patient-centred, holistic Oncology service fulfils the needs of patients in Newcastle NSW and surrounds. To make an appointment, please call (02) 4941 8424 or (02) 4942 2600 or use our online contact form.