November is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Lung cancer accounts for the highest mortality rate among all cancers—for women too. Typically, lung cancer is not detected until it has already advanced to Stage III or Stage IV. But advancements in early detection may change that. One such method is a simple blood draw performed at your doctor’s office that could be analyzed for biomarkers indicating if a tumor could be present in someone who is at high risk for developing lung cancer. This could improve survival for those with lung cancer.
Our lungs are constantly growing and developing new cells; when this process goes wrong (for example, from repeated exposure to carcinogen-carrying smoke), the buildup of extra cells can turn into a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. Lung cancer disease begins in the spongy tissue of the lungs, and is often caused by damaged cells lining the lungs.
When symptoms are present, they may include: a new cough that doesn’t seem to go away, changes in a chronic cough, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, chest pain, wheezing, hoarseness, losing weight without trying, and bone pain.
If you suspect you may have lung cancer, it is important to discuss it with your doctor to assure early detection and treatment. Some questions you may want to ask are
- How is lung cancer diagnosed? Doctors typically don’t test for lung cancer unless there is reason to test for it; it is a controversial subject for many doctors if screening is beneficial. If there is cause for concern about lung cancer, your doctor may order several types of tests (blood draw, imaging tests, sputum cytology, and tissue sample or biopsy) to determine if you have lung cancer.
- What type of lung cancer do I have? As with most cancers, within each type, there are stages and different forms of the disease. Lung cancer is usually determined as either non-small cell lung cancer (most cases), or small cell lung cancer (more rare). If you are diagnosed with lung cancer, the doctor will then perform an assessment to determine the staging (extent) of your disease.
- How is lung cancer treated? Treatment for lung cancer depends on what type you have and staging. Otherwise, treatment may include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, drug therapy, experimental treatment or clinical trials, and supportive therapy. In some cases, you may not want to undergo extensive treatment and may opt for comfort care to minimize symptoms such as pain.
- What is the long-term risk? Unfortunately, people diagnosed with lung cancer typically do not have good survival rates; the disease is fatal for most. Lung cancer has a high incidence of metastasis (spreading) which often causes more acute symptoms of pain, nausea, headaches, or other signs and symptoms depending on the affected organ(s). The goal (aside from finding a cure) is to obtain earlier treatment and improve quality of life for patients with lung cancer.
- Should I get a second opinion? Be your own best advocate! If you want a second opinion, ask for one. Many doctors welcome a second opinion contrary to what you might think. Many insurance companies may cover additional testing performed by a different doctor if your doctor requests it. Some insurance companies even require a second opinion. The short delay taken in getting all the information to allow you to feel more confident and in control of your health in most cases will not be detrimental to your treatment.
- What if the doctor suggests I have surgery? If you decide to have surgery, your doctor may remove a small section of your lung, lobe, or an entire lung; lymph nodes in your chest also may be removed to check for signs of cancer. Following surgery, lung tissue may spread out to accommodate for the lost tissue (where possible). Your doctor may suggest working with a respiratory therapist to guide you through breathing exercises and aid recovery.
- Are there alternative treatments for lung cancer? It may be tempting to search out alternative or complementary treatments if your doctor has told you there is no cure for your disease. While things like acupuncture, hypnosis, massage, meditation, and yoga may ease symptoms, and relieve anxiety about your condition, they cannot cure lung cancer.
- Is there any research I can do on my own and what sources would you recommend? A cancer diagnosis can be scary, frustrating, and depressing. Your doctors can suggest their favorite reputable web sites and support groups for obtaining more information and helping you cope with lung cancer. Some of the resources below may provide additional information as well.
This information is not meant to be a replacement for talking with your doctor. Talk with your team of doctors to get the full picture for your particular case.
www.mayoclinic.com Lung Cancer
www.lungcancer.org Lung Cancer
www.cancer.org Cancer Early Detection Guidelines
www.medicinenet.com Lung Cancer
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Christine Jeffries is a writer/editor for work and at heart, and lives in a home of testosterone with her husband and two sons. Christine is interested in women’s health and promoting strong women.