As the experience of actress Dana Reeve has recently shown, lung cancer is a disease that knows no bias among its victims. Smokers and non-smokers can be affected, underscoring the importance of awareness and educational efforts among individuals of all ages.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who smoke are 10 to 20 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. However, other factors also may come into play, such as exposure to secondhand smoke, exposure to environmental carcinogens or family history.
According to Dr. Ralph B. Vance, a past national president of the American Cancer Society and University of Mississippi Medical Center professor of medicine in the Division of Medical Oncology, 2,230 new cases of lung cancer are projected to be diagnosed in Mississippi this year, with 173,770 new cases projected in the United States.
While more than 75% of Mississippians do not smoke, according to Vance, they are nonetheless affected by the 25% of those who do.
Secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke, according to the CDC, is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning end of tobacco products (sidestream smoke) and the smoke exhaled by smokers (mainstream smoke). Statistics show that the cigarette contains around 4,000 components, with about 48 known to be carcinogens.
Tar, the one that is usually associated with the carcinogenic process, according to Vance, is 70% higher in sidestream smoke than in mainstream smoke. Moreover, carbon monoxide is 2.5 times greater in sidestream than in mainstream smoke, according to the Office on Smoking and Health.
Far reaching consequences
Research conducted by the CDC reveals another disturbing element in the equation — specifically, that approximately 60% of non-smokers in the United States have biological evidence of secondhand smoke exposure. Of particular concern is the impact on young children — according to the CDC, they are deemed to be even more susceptible to secondhand smoke because their lungs are not fully developed.
While tobacco use and exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke is a considerable factor, other environmental exposures in the workplace or in the home may also contribute to one’s risk for developing lung cancer — such as exposure to radon or asbestos. Dr. Jaime Ungo, a Tupelo physician, stressed that it is also important to consider family history, particularly if a person’s parents or siblings have had lung cancer.
Lung cancer may present local symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, pneumonia, coughing up blood or chest pain, and according to Vance, more general symptoms may include weight loss and fatigue. While these symptoms can happen with other illnesses as well, experts said that people with symptoms should bring them to the attention of their physicians. While different patients may exhibit different symptoms, some don’t have any at all, according to the CDC. For example, the agency estimates that about 25% of people with lung cancer do not have symptoms from advanced cancer when the lung cancer is found.
Vance noted that if a patient receives a diagnosis of lung cancer, the patient should ask his/her physician several critical questions: for example, if the tumor has spread beyond the lung and whether the cancer can be surgically excised; whether patient enrollment in clinical trials is a viable alternative, if surgery is not an option; the pros/cons of treatments such as chemotherapy and/or radiation, given the patient’s specific circumstances.
Vance said that options are increasing every day for those patients who cannot undergo surgical excision.
“Besides new chemotherapeutic drugs which are emerging daily, there are new approaches to block growth factors of tumors,” Vance stated. “There are monoclonal antibodies to better direct therapy to the tumor without harming normal human cells. There is now an approach to lung tumors utilizing radiofrequency ablative techniques to lower tumor burden. Radiation therapy is now better than ever in that there are new ways of directing the radiation more specifically to the tumor without doing damage to the normal cells.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at firstname.lastname@example.org.