Breathing is barely noticeable, an automatic action that happens without thinking about it. Nevertheless, breath is fundamental, delivering life-giving oxygen from the surrounding air to cells in the human body. When breathing becomes difficult to do, it suddenly becomes very noticeable.
When the lungs become compromised, it can be a dire situation. For example, when cells undergo uncontrolled growth in the lungs, it is called lung cancer. Cancer is an abnormal condition in which cell division does not stop. These cancerous cells are created at such a high rate that they damage nearby tissue and may even travel to other body parts to settle (called metastasis).
Human lungs are so efficient and resilient that many lung cancer cases are not caught until they are well advanced. Screening is vital if you fit the risk profile or are having symptoms because early diagnosis can be the key to life-saving interventions.
Fortunately for those who have been diagnosed with lung cancer, there are complementary therapies that provide robust support during treatment. Better yet, there are easy-to-incorporate strategies to prevent lung cancer in the first place. General cancer prevention strategies can help reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.
Certain circumstances increase the risk of developing lung cancer.
Smoking cigarettes is the “number one risk factor for lung cancer,” according to the CDC (1). Light or low-tar cigarettes contribute to lung cancer risk to the same degree as regular cigarettes (2). Fortunately, lung cancer risk can be lowered by quitting smoking at any age (1) and can improve survival rates even after lung cancer diagnosis (3).
The following things also increase lung cancer risks (1, 2):
Inhaling secondhand smoke
Living in a house or working in a building that leaks radon gas (the second leading cause of lung cancer is radon exposure, and it is the leading cause of lung cancer among people who do not smoke)
Exposure to cancer-causing substances such as asbestos, diesel exhaust, and even airborne minerals
Previous incidence of lung cancer
Family members who have (or had) lung cancer
Radiation therapy in the chest area
Symptoms of lung cancer overlap with other types of cancer but have their own unique characteristics as well (4, 5, 6).
Cough that does not go away or shortness of breath
Coughing up blood
Inability to breathe deeply (shortness of breath)
Repeated cases of bronchitis or pneumonia
Voice becomes hoarse
Pain in the chest
Enlarged lymph nodes above the collar bones
Consistent joint or muscle pain that does not appear to have an underlying reason
Consistent night sweats or unexplained fevers
Bruising or bleeding that has no underlying reason
Changes in weight or unintentionally losing weight
Any unusual changes in the skin: change in color, prolonged healing time for wounds
When to Screen for Lung Cancer
If you fit the risk profile above or are experiencing the symptoms listed it may indicate it is time to get screened for lung cancer. Additionally, proactive screening could be appropriate for the following (7):
Those who have a smoking history that can be defined as a 20-pack year (or more) and
Have quit smoking anytime in the past 15 years or currently smoke and
Age is between 50–80 years old
*A pack-year is defined as smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. So, a person could have a 20 pack-year history by smoking two packs a day for 10 years or one pack a day for 20 years (7).
Various medical professionals can perform screenings for lung cancer, including oncologists, and general practitioners in various settings, or they can make referrals to screening centers. There are risks to screening, so it should only be done if there is an appropriate reason (7). Early detection is best, usually determined by low-dose CT scans, blood tests, or testing sputum samples (8).
Different Types of Lung Cancer Require Different Treatment
Oncologists specialize in cancer and practice the standard of care for cancer diagnoses. Besides the FDA-approved “standard of care” treatments for lung cancer, oncologists can often help patients enroll in clinical trials for promising new medications and treatments. The treatment course is determined only after careful diagnosis.