Lung cancer accounts for 27 percent of all cancer deaths each year in the U.S., making it the deadliest cancer among both men and women. In fact, one in 15 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease. Sadly, lung cancer also has the lowest five-year survival rate, with fewer than 2 out of 10 people diagnosed with the disease living five years or more.
In Kentucky, the stats are worse. The Commonwealth has the HIGHEST incidence of lung cancer in the nation and the highest mortality rate. It’s not a coincidence that Kentucky also has one of the highest smoking rates in the U.S. – tobacco is killing our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, cousins and friends.
At Lexington Clinic, we are committed to doing our part to raise awareness of the deadly toll of lung cancer on our community and our Commonwealth. We believe education and understanding are key to creating a future free of lung cancer. In that spirit, and in recognition of November as Lung Cancer Awareness month, we’re providing some simple-to-understand education and advice.
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the lung. These cells grow rapidly and do not function as normal lung cells do. They form tumors that interfere with the lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Lung cancer can affect one or both lungs and most often occurs in the cells that line the tubes that carry air into and out of the lungs. There are two main types of lung cancer: small cell and non-small cell.
What causes lung cancer?
The No. 1 cause of lung cancer in Kentucky and throughout the U.S. is smoking.
The No. 2 cause of cancer is radon. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas formed by the radioactive decay of radium. Radon levels in our area of the country – Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia – are considered high. Fayette County’s average radon level is double the “acceptable” level.
Couple high smoking rates with high radon levels and you’ve got a recipe for high lung cancer incidence and mortality.
Why is lung cancer often found late?
Your lungs do not have a lot of pain receptors. That means when something goes wrong in your lungs, you won’t feel it in the same way you would feel something wrong with another part of your body. So pain is rarely an early symptom of lung cancer. In the absence of pain, we don’t realize anything is wrong. Further, the first symptoms of lung cancer often don’t appear until the disease is advanced or has spread. Making it more difficult, lung cancer symptoms often mimic other diseases. This can lead to delays in seeking care, diagnosis and treatment. These delays directly impact survivability.
Symptoms of lung cancer
Coughing is the most common symptom and is reported in about half of all cases. Coughing up blood, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain/discomfort and fatigue may also occur. Pneumonia is another symptom.
When lung cancer has advanced to other parts of the body, additional symptoms may appear, including hoarseness, difficulty swallowing or a high-pitched whistling sound when taking a breath. Depending on where the disease has spread, the patient may have bone pain, nausea, headaches and visual disturbances. Other symptoms that may seem unrelated to lung cancer can arise, including lack of appetite, anemia and higher than normal levels of calcium in the blood.
The types of lung cancer
Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common form, accounting for about 80 percent or more cases. It usually spreads and grows more slowly than small cell lung cancer. There are different types of NSCLC, but the most common forms are adenocarcinoma, which begins in the cells that form the lining of the lungs, and squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the cells that line the passages of the respiratory tract (trachea, bronchi and bronchioles).
Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) makes up 15 to 20 percent of lung cancer cases. A fast-growing cancer, it spreads quickly to other parts of the body. SCLC tumors may contain both small cell and non-small cell forms.
Mesothelioma is another type of lung cancer that originates in the lining of the lungs. It can also occur in the linings of other organs such as the abdomen, heart and chest. Mesothelioma is associated with asbestos exposure.
Carcinoid tumors start in the cells that specialized cells that produce hormones. These tumors can arise in both the lungs and the small intestines.
If smoking is the NO. 1 risk factor, is there anything a smoker can do to reduce their risk?
Yes – quit tobacco in all forms, including electronic cigarettes (eCigs or vaping). The sooner you quit, the better the chance of mitigating damage to your lungs (and other parts of your body).
Quitting smoking is difficult. Nicotine is a tough drug to quit, and most smokers have strong habits associated with tobacco use. For example, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee after a meal. It is not uncommon for a smoker to quit multiple times times before being successful. The important thing is to not give up hope. It is possible to quit, and there are many resources to help, including QuitNowKentucky.org (1-800-QUIT-NOW), sponsored by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
The second most important thing to do is to talk with your family doctor about screening for lung cancer. A new screening tool, the low-dose CT, has been clinically proven to find lung nodules and cancers early, when they are most treatable.
The screening is available to smokers/ex-smokers who meet certain guidelines. These include the length of time they smoked, how much they smoked, age, health status, whether they already have symptoms or have been diagnosed with lung cancer and their ability to undergo treatment for lung cancer should a problem be found. Only a doctor can order the test for you, so be sure to ask.
A cancer-free future
A future without lung cancer starts here. It starts now. The pulmonary specialists and primary care physicians at Lexington Clinic can help. Call Lexington Clinic at (859) 258-4DOC (4362) or visit LexingtonClinic.com to explore your options for lung cancer screening, smoking cessation or any aspect of lung health.