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Understanding lung cancer

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Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer. There are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages, but many people with the condition eventually develop symptoms including: a persistent cough, coughing up blood, persistent breathlessness, unexplained tiredness and weight loss, an ache or pain when breathing or coughing.

Types of lung cancer: Cancer that begins in the lungs is called primary lung cancer. Cancer that spreads from the lungs to another place in the body is known as secondary lung cancer. There are two main types of primary lung cancer. These are classified by the type of cells in which the cancer starts. They are: non-small-cell lung cancer – the most common type, accounting for more than 80 per cent of cases; can be either squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma or large-cell carcinoma; and small-cell lung cancer – a less common type that usually spreads faster than non-small-cell lung cancer.

Causes of lung cancer: Most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking, although people who have never smoked can also develop the condition.

Smoking: Smoking cigarettes is the single biggest risk factor for lung cancer. It’s responsible for more than 85 per cent of all cases.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 60 different toxic substances, which can lead to the development of cancer. These substances are known to be carcinogenic (cancer-producing).

If you smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day, you are 25 times more likely to get lung cancer than a non-smoker.

While smoking cigarettes is the biggest risk factor, using other types of tobacco products can also increase your risk of developing lung cancer and other types of cancer, such as oesophageal cancer and mouth cancer. These products include: cigars, pipe tobacco, snuff (a powdered form of tobacco), and chewing tobacco.

Occupational exposure and pollution: Exposure to certain chemicals and substances used in several occupations and industries has been linked to a slightly higher risk of developing lung cancer. These chemicals and substances include: arsenic, asbestos, beryllium, cadmium, coal and coke fumes, silica, and nickel

Preventing lung cancer: If you smoke, the best way to prevent lung cancer and other serious conditions is to stop smoking as soon as possible. However long you have been smoking, it’s always worth quitting. Every year you don’t smoke decreases your risk of getting serious illnesses, such as lung cancer. After 10 years of not smoking, your chances of developing lung cancer falls to half that of someone who smokes.

Diet: Research suggests that eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet, including at least five portions a day of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of whole grains can reduce your risk of lung cancer, as well as other types of cancer and heart disease.

Exercise: There’s strong evidence to suggest that regular exercise can lower the risk of developing lung cancer and other types of cancer. Adults should do at least 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week

Treating lung cancer: Treatment depends on the type of cancer, how far it’s spread and how good your general health is. If the condition is diagnosed early and the cancerous cells are confined to a small area, surgery to remove the affected area of lung is usually recommended.

If surgery is unsuitable due to your general health, radiotherapy to destroy the cancerous cells may be recommended instead. If the cancer has spread too far for surgery or radiotherapy to be effective, chemotherapy is usually used.

*Dr. Anthony Nwaoney is an epidemiologist and Medical Director Richie Hospital


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