Lung Cancer Basics
Mysterious. Enigmatic. Strange.
That’s what most people thought about Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”
The big, brightly-colored canvas was exotic. The images of birth, life and death were disturbing and unsettling. And the painting asked important questions about the meaning of life – questions we’re still struggling to answer today.
Kind of like the questions people ask about lung cancer.
Where does it come from? What is it? And – if I get this type of cancer – what are my options? How will I get treated? Where will I end up?
Those are questions that deserve an answer.
Philosophers are still arguing over the meaning of Gauguin’s painting – but, fortunately, lung cancer doesn’t have to be such a mystery.
Since November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, it’s the best possible time to get basic lung cancer questions asked and answered. Maybe you’re a smoker; maybe you have smokers in your family; or maybe you’re just curious about how this type of cancer works. This article is a starting point for your most basic lung cancer questions.
Don’t forget to visit the Lung Cancer Alliance for a list of organizations that fight lung cancer and ways you can get involved. Getting informed is the first step – staying active is the next.
But first of all, make sure you understand lung cancer basics.
Where does lung cancer come from? What is it?
The origins of lung cancer are a little more complicated than you might think.
Lung cancer is the single deadliest cancer in the United States for both men and women, causing more deaths than breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers combined. Lung cancer is divided into two main types: small cell lung cancer (the most aggressive form of lung cancer, which attacks the breathing tubes in the center of the chest) and non-small cell lung cancer (a slower-spreading form of cancer, which can attack any area of the lung). Both types of cancer are deadly.
Surprisingly enough, this disease isn’t just a “smoker’s cancer” -- there are a whole host of risk factors for lung cancer, including some that may surprise you.
Sometimes people do develop lung cancer with no apparent risk factors, but usually doctors can link the cancer back to a specific lifestyle choice or carcinogen. If you cut down on your exposure to known lung cancer causes, your chances of a cancer diagnosis will be much, much less.
The good news is that lung cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Living a healthy lifestyle and avoiding risk factors will go a long way towards protecting you and your family.
So, what should you avoid?
Smoking (or any form of tobacco consumption) isn’t the only cause of lung cancer, but it’s the most common one. In the U.S. alone, cigarette smoking causes about 90% of lung cancer cases – definitely a sobering statistic.
It’s downright astonishing that in the early 1900s, doctors sometimes prescribed smoking in an effort to clear up lung ailments. Today we know the facts, and they’re not pretty.
Tobacco smoke is a poisonous cocktail of over 7,000 chemicals, including over 70 known carcinogens. If you’re a smoker, you’re 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer than a non-smoker is. That goes for occasional or light smokers, too – even a small amount of tobacco drastically increases your cancer risk. The longer you smoke, dip or chew, the greater your chances of a cancer diagnosis.
Second-hand smoke (being around someone else who uses tobacco) is just as dangerous as being a smoker. Two out of every five non-smoking adults – as well as half of all children – have been exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke; every year, 3,000 U.S. non-smokers die from lung cancer due to second-hand smoke.
If you want more in-depth information and statistics on the connection between smoking and lung cancer, visit these pages at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Cancer Institute.
Incidentally, smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer – it can trigger leukemia (bone marrow cancer) as well as cancers of the cervix, kidney, bladder, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, mouth, throat, nose and larynx (voicebox).
That’s definitely a prospect you want to avoid.
Even if you’ve smoked for many years, quitting now can reduce your risk of cancer. Lung Cancer Awareness Month is the perfect time to make that decision. You can contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online and begin their “Quit Smoking” plan. You can also call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669).
Tobacco smoke is a significant part of the lung cancer story…but it’s not the whole one. Some of the other common lung cancer risk factors include carcinogen exposure, diet and even family history.
Read on to discover some of the most frequently overlooked causes of lung cancer.
Never heard of radon? You’ve also never seen, smelled or tasted it, because it’s an invisible, odorless radioactive gas. Naturally occurring in dirt and soil, radon can seep into many types of buildings through pipes, floorboards and foundations. Radon exposure causes lung cancer, triggering cell mutations when radioactive particles lodge in the lungs.
You could call radon the silent killer.
It’s easy to focus lung cancer prevention efforts on tobacco, because cigarettes are easy to smell. However, ignoring radon can be deadly. According to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protective Agency), radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., claiming about 20,000 victims per year. Approximately 1 in every 15 homes has elevated (unsafe) radon levels.
The EPA recommends that you buy a home testing kit at your local hardware store and measure your house for excessive radon levels. For in-depth information on how to test for radon – and how to reduce radon levels if necessary – visit the EPA's "Citizen Guide to Radon."
Make sure you know whether you’re being exposed to radon on a daily basis. You could be saving your family’s life.
Radon isn’t the only substance that could be damaging your lung lining, though: if you work in a chemical-heavy profession like the painting industry or the auto industry, you might be breathing in fumes that drastically increase your lung cancer risk.
A few chemicals that can contribute to lung cancer include:
For a comprehensive list of workplace chemicals that can cause lung cancer, visit the CDC's "Workplace Safety and Health Topics" page.
Other Risk Factors
Family history can play a significant role in lung cancer: if you have a parent, grandparent or sibling with lung cancer you may be more likely to get cancer, too. You might share a gene that makes family members more susceptible to lung cancer – or, of course, you might all be exposed to the same environmental risk factors after spending time in the same home. Having a family member with lung cancer won’t give you cancer, of course, but it definitely increases your odds of diagnosis.
Radiation therapy. If you’ve had radiation therapy for some other type of medical condition (particularly if you’ve experienced direct radiation to the chest), you may develop lung cancer as a secondary cancer. You’re at a higher risk for secondary lung cancer if you’ve undergone radiation for Hodgkin disease or breast cancer.
Diet. Scientists are still researching the connections between diet and lung cancer, but some evidence suggests that beta-carotene supplements may increase the risk of cancer in people who already smoke. Also, watch your drinking water, especially if it’s from a private well – traces of arsenic can give you lung cancer, too.
How is lung cancer treated?
If you’re diagnosed with lung cancer, you have a number of treatment options, depending on the type and stage of your cancer. If the cancer has not spread (metastasized) beyond the lymph nodes, surgery is usually the best choice.