Around 44,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with lung cancer every year. Our third most common cancer is probably the most feared, yet also one of the most preventable, and awareness of causes and symptoms can help with that prevention.
The International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC) is hoping their Lung Cancer Awareness Month will help foster hope with news of promising new treatments and alleviate stigma, reminding us that lung cancer can affect anyone.
What Causes Lung Cancer?
Smoking is responsible for 90% of all UK cases and 6 million deaths, worldwide, each year – all preventable, points out the World Cancer Research Fund. Tobacco smoke contains 60 cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) and causes other cancers including breast, bowel (colorectal), blood, bladder, liver, mouth, pancreatic and stomach cancer. Cannabis also contains carcinogens.
Starting smoking at a young age increases lung cancer risk, but after quitting, your risk reduces over 15 years to that of a non-smoker.
Passive Smoking (second and third-hand smoke)
Non-smoking women living with smoking partners are 25% more likely to develop lung cancer than those with non-smoking partners. To prevent lung cancer in others, smokers should never smoke near them OR in their environment – even when they’re not there. ‘Third-hand smoke’ (toxins settling on surfaces) can be re-released or form new, toxic compounds. It’s not eliminated by opening windows and infants may be particularly exposed by chewing toys and furnishings. It’s been illegal to smoke in a vehicle carrying under-18s since Oct 2015.
Radon, a naturally-occurring radioactive gas sometimes found in buildings (responsible for 3% of lung cancer deaths in England). Occupational exposure to substances including arsenic, asbestos, beryllium, cadmium, coal and coke fumes, silica, nickel and, long-term, diesel fumes.
your lung cancer risk increases by about a third if you live in an area with high levels of nitrogen oxide gases (mostly produced by vehicles).
Age and Genes
About 80% of lung cancers occur in people over 60 and a family history of lung cancer may increase risk.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer
If you have any of these symptoms, DON’T presume you have lung cancer; they can indicate less serious conditions. But DO see your doctor immediately.
- A new, persistent cough
- A long-standing cough that changes or worsens (different sound, pain, mucus production or colour).
- Persistent or frequent chest infections.
Coughing up blood.
- An ache or pain when breathing or coughing.
- Persistent breathlessness.
- Persistent fatigue/lack of energy.
- Loss or change of appetite.
- Unexplained weight loss.
Less common symptoms include:
- Finger clubbing (the fingers become more curved or thicken at the fingertip).
- High temperature.
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing.
- Swelling of your face or neck.
- Persistent dull ache or sharp pain in the chest or shoulder.
Symptoms caused by hormones released by certain types of lung cancer cells (paraneoplastic syndrome):
- Pins and needles or numbness in the fingers or toes.
- Drowsiness, weakness, dizziness and confusion.
- Breast swelling in men.
- Blood clots.
Symptoms known as Horner’s syndrome, caused by pancoast tumours (at the very top of the lung) pressing against the nerve running up the neck to the face:
- Severe pain in the shoulder or travelling down the arm.
- In one eye: drooping of the eyelid and/or a small pupil.
- Loss of sweating on one side of the face.
How is Lung Cancer Diagnosed?
Your GP will give you a general health check. They may also use a spirometer to assess your breathing and refer you for a blood test and/or X-ray. If necessary, they’ll refer you to a specialist who will perform further tests. These may include scans (ultrasound, CT or PET), a bronchoscopy and a biopsy.
Types, Stages and Treatment of Lung Cancer
Non-small cell lung cancer
Non-small cell lung cancer, the more common type, is classified in stages 1 to 4. Stage 1 is the least extensive, indicating a small tumour that hasn’t spread to nearby lymph nodes, while Stage 4 indicates a lung cancer which has either:
- Been found in both lungs.
- Spread to another part of the body.
- Caused a build-up of cancer cells around the heart or lungs.
Treatment depends on the type, stage and position of your cancer and your general health. Possible treatments include:
- Symptom relief.
If you’re in good health and the cancer is in one lung, surgery is often the initial treatment, followed by radiotherapy. If your cancer has spread or your general health isn’t good, chemotherapy or chemoradiotherapy will be recommended.
Small cell lung cancer
Small cell lung cancer is less common and tends to spread more quickly. It’s classified as ‘limited’ if it hasn’t spread beyond one lung and nearby lymph nodes and ‘extensive’ if it has spread beyond this. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy or chemoradiotherapy is usually recommended.
New immunotherapy treatments and targeted therapies are improving outcomes for lung cancer, so don’t let fear prevent you from visiting the doctor.
Information and Support:
Lung Cancer Awareness Month
Macmillan Cancer Support
Tel: 0808 808 00 00
The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation
Tel: 0333 323 7200