Everybody by now (I hope!) has seen campaigns about breast cancer or testicular cancer - enough to get the gist of what these are and what you should look out for. But how many of us really know anything at all about lung cancer? How many of us know what is myth... and what is reality about lung cancer?
I hadn't known until I went to medical school. Here are some things I think you should know about lung cancer.
Among all cancers, lung cancer is the commonest cause of death due to cancer in both men and women in the UK and the US. The 5-year survival rate (i.e. how many people will be alive 5 years after diagnosis) is < 15% in both the UK and the US. This means that out of 10 people you know who have been diagnosed with lung cancer, 9 will be gone within 5 years.
A "cancer" is a growth of abnormal cells. These cells have forgotten how to stop replicating, so they continue multiplying and growing and growing. Ultimately, they take up the body's resources and replace the tissue that they originated from. When they start in the lungs, they replace the ordinary lung tissue.
At some point, the body is unable to keep compensating. There is just not enough original tissue left, or the tumour is causing a blockage somewhere, or the body's resources have been used up.
Worse, cancers spread, and this vicious cycle is repeated at other sites. Lung cancer can migrate to the brain, liver and bones.
Lung cancer is a killer because symptoms do not develop until the cancer is advanced. You have heard that the key to surviving a cancer is early detection. In lung cancer... this is illustrated. Lung cancer is so damning because it presents late. You just don't know you have it until it is huge.
The symptoms are often non-specific or not alarming. They include:
Shortness of breath
Persisting cough and sputum (sometimes containing blood)
As you can imagine, somebody with a couple of the above symptoms may well believe they've got nothing really wrong with them... and wait for months before they think they should see their doctor. So the cancer, that was already advanced enough to produce symptoms, progresses even more.
There are so many myths about this. Here are the facts: there are several types of lung cancers and some are not caused by smoking. I have seen so many comments, and lately stamps, about how lung cancer and smokers deserve each other.
Educate yourself before being so cruel and stupid.
Smoking causes 80-85% of lung cancers. The remaining may be caused by asbestos, radon (present in the atmosphere and in homes) and viruses. In many people, we just don't know why they have lung cancer.
All smokers do not get lung cancer. This sentence is something many smokers use to defend their choice to continue smoking. Here are the facts: a third of smokers will develop COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary lung disease - which shortens life by 15+ years), the other third will develop serious heart disease and the remaining third will develop lung cancer. I am not making these figures up - they have been quoted to me by many lung specialists. If you smoke - the reality is that you will develop a serious problem of some kind somewhere along the line.
Only heavy smokers get ill from their smoking. Myth. Sad myth. I have personally met people who smoked 5-10 cigarettes from their late teens until their 30s, who have serious lung disease. Your risk of developing a problem does increase with cigarette consumption. But don't take it as an absolute.
Lung cancer is a rapid and terrible downward spiral that you want to avoid: yourself, and those you love. As of now, screening for lung cancer by the use of scans (X-Ray, CT) has not proved beneficial - by the time your cancer is big enough to be spotted... it is big enough that your prognosis is not good.
Therefore, it is important that you realise that smoking is the single cause of lung cancer that can be reduced - the main way you can ensure you do not get lung cancer.
And to finish, there is one thing I want to say: to the insensitive jerks, SHUT UP about "oh, you got lung cancer, it serves you right for smoking!" You're ignorant. And you do many irresponsible things that predispose you to early and horrible deaths - you wouldn't like me to tell you, when you come to A&E (or ER) bleeding to death: "oh, serves you right for doing so-and-so." Be human. Instead of a brainless git.
Please spread the word. November is the Lung Cancer Awareness Month and only with your support can people learn more about the top killer among cancers.