More than 28,000 Canadians are diagnosed with lung cancer each year. Of those 28,000 individuals, nearly 4,000 of them are located right here in British Columbia. Lung cancer is defined as the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in one or both lungs; and while there is a well-established association between lung cancer and tobacco use, it can also, surprisingly, affect life-long non-smokers. This article takes an in-depth look at the function of the lungs, the symptoms that are associated with lung cancer, the different causes and risk factors, as well as the treatment options that are used.
When you’re breathing, this means that your lungs are functioning. The main role of the lungs is to bring in air from the atmosphere and pass it as oxygen through the bloodstream with then circulates to the rest of your body. When you suffer from a disease such as lung cancer or other respiratory-related illness (such as asthma or COPD), then your lung function can become – and sometimes severely – impacted. Like many types of cancer, patients who are in the early stage of lung cancer may not experience any symptoms at all. However, common symptoms that are associated with lung cancer include recurring lung infections (such as bronchitis or pneumonia), a persisting or worsening cough (often lasting for at least 3 or more weeks), shortness of breath, hoarseness, changing voice, coughing up blood, fatigue, loss of appetite, and weight loss. There are also other symptoms that are less common that can occur, such as wheezing, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and even blood clots. If you have any of these signs or symptoms, then you should let your physician known as soon as possible. While many of these symptoms can be associated with other lung-related conditions and illnesses, it’s better that you get checked out.
As mentioned, lung cancer is most commonly associated with smoking and accounts for as many as 90% of all lung cancer-related deaths. Smokers also have a higher risk of developing lung cancer than those who are non-smokers. However, non-smokers are not immune to it, and there are many other contributing factors that can cause one to develop cancer. Even if you’re not a smoker yourself, you can get lung cancer as a result of being exposed to second-hand smoke (i.e. being around others who are smokers.) Exposure to certain environmental pollutants and chemicals can also increase one’s risk of developing lung cancer. This includes air pollution from vehicles and power plants/factors, as well as exposure to things like asbestos, chromium, nickel, uranium, and coal tar products, just to name a few. Your risk of lung cancer also increases if you have had damage caused by other lung disease, as well as if you were previously diagnosed with cancers of the mouth or throat.
There are both local and systemic treatment methods used for lung cancer, though the treatment that is decided upon is dependent on the type of lung cancer, and stage that it is in. Systemic treatments include things like chemotherapy (different drugs given to kill cancer cells as well as prevent them from growing and dividing), targeted therapy (to disrupt the process of cancer cells), and immunotherapy (to stimulate the body’s defense mechanisms), and these are used when the cancer is either found in several parts of the body or to reduce the risk of the cancer from recurring; while local treatments include radiation therapy (to help shrink or destroy tumours) and surgery (physical removal of tumours.)
There are also complications that can occur as a result of having cancer. Blood clots, for example, is one complication that occur and can be a result of the cancer itself or from the treatments, in addition to extended bedrest. Individuals at risk of developing blood clots or who have had blood clots will have to take blood thinners. Pneumonia, an infection of the tissue of the lungs, can also occur as a result of having a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment. Pneumonia can be fatal, though can be eradicated with early detection and antibiotic treatment. However, in some cases, patients with lung cancer may also need to be hospitalized. Lung cancer will also commonly spread to the bones resulting in something known as bone metastases, in which you will experience pain. There are different treatment methods available for this including injectable drugs as well as radiation and, in some cases, surgery.