By Michael Luu, M.D.
More people die in the U.S. from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. In 2010, there were an estimated 222,000 new cases and 157,000 deaths. Since 1953, lung cancer has been the most common cause of cancer deaths in men, and in 1985, it became the leading cause of cancer deaths in women too.
Men’s lung cancer mortality rates have been declining, but the number of women who die from lung cancer is on the rise; almost one-half of all lung cancer deaths are women. The most important lung cancer risk factor is smoking, but that doesn’t mean non-smokers are immune; 19 percent of women and nine percent of men who suffer from lung cancer in the U.S. have never smoked.
Unlike some other cancers, for which screening is considered a necessity, the jury’s out regarding the benefit of lung cancer screening. Researchers have found that those who get chest x-rays, a screening modality that used to be promoted in the medical community, don’t have a lower death rate than those who aren’t screened. In addition, x-rays may pick up lung abnormalities that aren’t cancers, but further testing, even surgery, might be needed to determine if cancer is actually present.
About 25 percent of those with advanced lung cancer won’t have any symptoms. Those who do may experience shortness of breath, coughing that doesn’t subside, wheezing, coughing up blood and chest pain. Because those symptoms can be indicative of other illnesses as well, your doctor will likely recommend a plain chest radiograph or CT scan, which typically detect lung cancer.
New technology such as the PET scan has provided us with a new approach to diagnose and stage lung cancer without surgical intervention. Patients always welcome less invasive procedures, especially during the diagnosis stage.
Lung cancer treatments will vary depending on when the cancer is detected. As with all cancers, early detection is key to having the most successful outcome. Lung cancer patients often get more than one kind of treatment, including surgery (cutting out the cancerous tissue), radiation (aiming high-energy rays at the cancer cells to kill them) and chemotherapy (using drugs to shrink or kill the cancer, both within the lungs and in any other area where cancer cells might have escaped).
New chemotherapy agents have improved lung cancer mortality compared to a decade ago, and research is ongoing to develop even better treatments. Those whose lung cancer has been eradicated will be subject to regular follow-up exams and imaging tests, and if the cancer does come back, they’ll have the same treatment options.
The best defense against lung cancer is to abstain from smoking or quit. While it’s true the lungs can “repair” themselves, former smokers still have a higher risk of developing lung cancer than those who’ve never smoked. It’s also a good idea to avoid second-hand smoke, ensure your home and workplace are radon-free, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
Dr. Luu is a board-certified pulmonologist who’s affiliated with the Sutter Medical Group, Sutter Solano Medical Center and is a Solano Community Provider Network and a member of Solano Coalition for Better Health. He sees patients at his Vallejo office.