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Lung Cancer: Knowing, avoiding risk factors essential to keeping rates down

Nov 28, 2014 09:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women in the United States, claiming more lives than breast, colon, ovarian and prostate cancers combined. But that statistic could soon change. A recent study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found overall lung cancer rates across the country are dropping.

The NCI study, which included data from more than 450,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer, found rates have dropped about 12 percent over nearly three decades. While researchers cannot definitively say what’s causing the drop, one possibility is that fewer people are smoking.

Tobacco smoking, including cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking, is the top risk factor for lung cancer. Studies have also found risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the number of years smoked.

Unfortunately, the NCI study also found specific types of lung cancer are on the rise, including adenocarcinoma—cancer that begins in the glandular cells. The American Cancer Society says adenocarcinoma accounts for about 40 percent of all lung cancer cases. The increase in adenocarcinoma rates may be caused by smokers changing the way they smoke, experts say.

More people are smoking low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes and inhaling more deeply to get nicotine. The deeper the smokers breathe, the greater the chance of tars getting into the outer area of the lungs where adenocarcinoma starts.

Even though overall lung cancer rates are declining, it’s still important to know your risk factors for the disease.

In addition to smoking, risk factors include:

  • Exposure to secondhand smoke—Secondhand smoke is the smoke that comes from a burning tobacco product or is exhaled by a smoker.
  • Exposure to radon gas—According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, radon causes about 20,000 cases of lung cancer each year. It is a naturally occurring gas that can get inside home and buildings.
  • Exposure to asbestos and other chemicals—Workplace exposure to asbestos, arsenic, chromium and nickel can increase the chance of lung cancer. The risk is even higher for those who smoke.
  • Family history of lung cancer—This includes a parent, sibling or child with the disease.
  • Radiation therapy to the chest—According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer survivors who had radiation therapy to the chest are at a higher risk of lung cancer. Patients at highest risk include those treated for Hodgkin disease and women treated with radiation after a mastectomy.

In its early stages, lung cancer may not show signs or symptoms. But if you have one of the risk factors above and experience a new cough that doesn’t go away, changes in a chronic cough, blood while coughing, chest pain, wheezing or shortness of breath, immediately contact your primary care doctor or a lung care specialist.

Area hospitals and specialists also offer reduced-dose lung cancer screening programs for people who are at high-risk for the disease. A NCI and National Lung Screening Trial study found these screenings can reduce the number of lung cancer deaths by 20 percent.

“Lung Cancer: Knowing, avoiding risk factors essential to keeping rates down” provided by University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center.
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