Lung Cancer – Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care
In the UK 38,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year. There are two types of lung cancer; small cell which occurs in 20% of cases and non-small cell which occurs in 80% of cases. Small cell lung cancer is the most dangerous as it travels through to other parts of the body early on and can get into the bloodstream or lymph system quite quickly. Non small cell lung cancer travels more slowly and if caught early can be successfully cured.
Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer although 10% of people with the disease have never smoked. The risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and the age of the smoker. If a person stops smoking the risks reduce quickly and after 15 years the chances of developing lung cancer are the same as a non-smoker. Breathing in other people’s cigarette smoke, known as passive smoking, increases the chances of getting lung cancer but the risks are far less than if you smoke yourself. Those who smoke cigars, pipes or cannabis have a lower risk of lung cancer than cigarette smokers but a far greater risk than non-smokers.
Radon gas in high concentrations is believed to add to the risk of developing lung cancer, this is a naturally occurring gas in some areas and you can get a radon detector to check the levels in your home. In rare cases contact with some chemicals and substances such as uranium, chromium and nickel can also cause lung cancer.
The symptoms of lung cancer can include:
A persistent or long standing cough
Coughing up blood
Loss of appetite and weight
Excessive tiredness and lethargy
It is important to get any of these symptoms checked out by a doctor but any could be caused by an illness other than lung cancer.
Diagnosis starts with an examination by a GP who may arrange for x-rays and tests to be conducted at a hospital. The hospital doctors may also do a CT scan or spiral CT scan which is a series of x-rays that build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body and can help find the site and size of the cancer; or a Bronchoscopy which is where the inside of the lung airways are examined with a bronchoscope. This is a thin flexible tube which is passed via the nose or mouth into the airways, the doctor can then look through the bronchoscope to check for abnormalities. Photographs and biopsies can be taken at the same time.
Small cell lung cancer is normally treated with chemotherapy which enables the patient to live longer with better control of the symptoms. Unless small cell lung cancer is found very early surgery is not normally done because the cancer will have spread to other parts of the body before being diagnosed. Sometimes radiotherapy is given to the head to prevent the cancer spreading to the brain and in advanced cases of small cell lung cancer it is used to effectively relieve symptoms such as pain.
Non small cell lung cancer is treated differently depending on the stage of the cancer; at an early stage surgery can be used to remove the cancer and is often followed up with chemotherapy. Radiotherapy may also be used on patients not fit enough or choosing not to have surgery. In advanced stages chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used, sometimes a combination of the two. These are used to maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible and relive pain.