November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month—a time when a number of cancer-focused nonprofits around the world focus on the prevention and treatment of cancers affecting the lungs. Lung cancers are among the most common cancers in the U.S., and while treatments have improved, they kill more Americans than any other form of cancer. That sounds scary, and it is—but the good news is that lung cancer is largely (though not entirely) preventable. Here, I’ll tell you more about what causes lung cancer, how you can protect yourself against it, and what you can do if you believe you’re at risk.
Basic Lung Cancer Facts and Statistics
There are two kinds of lung cancer:
- non-small cell lung cancer
- small cell lung cancer
Both cancers cause malignant cells to develop in the tissues of your lungs. The primary risk factor for these types of lung cancer is the use of tobacco, although non-smokers can and do develop both varieties as well. Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common of the two and requires different care than small-cell cancer, but both may involve treatments that include:
- radiation therapy
If you currently smoke any nicotine products, like cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe (or if you ever did in the past), you’re at an increased risk of developing lung cancer. But what if you are not a smoker? Other major risk factors of lung cancer include:
- exposure to secondhand smoke
- a family history of lung cancer
- being HIV+
- exposure to environmental carcinogens
Some of the environmental carcinogens that increase your risk for lung cancer include, but are not limited to radon, asbestos, uranium, coal products, and diesel exhaust.
Are You at Risk for Lung Cancer? | Lung Cancer Awareness Month | Beaumont Health
Compared to other cancers, lung cancer can metastasize (spread to other parts of your body) and become more serious very quickly. That means that without immediate treatment and lifestyle changes, a patient may move from the early stages of lung cancer to the final ones in just a year or two.
Lung cancer survival rates vary greatly depending on how soon the malignant cells are detected and when medical treatment begins. The five-year survival rate of patients with metastatic (stage 4) non-small cell lung cancer can be anywhere from 37% to as low as 3%, depending on the spread of the disease. For patients with metastatic (stage 4) small cell lung cancer, the rate is anywhere from 18% to just 4%. That’s why cancer prevention habits and early detection are so important—survival rates in patients in stage 0 or stage 1 are significantly more favorable. Unfortunately, about 70% of lung cancer diagnoses are made in the advanced stages, which is why the survival statistics are as low as they are. The observance of an annual Lung Cancer Awareness Month (as well as a World Lung Cancer Day on August 1) aims to change all that.
Protecting Your Lungs for Life
It’s never fun to consider the possibility that you could be affected by a serious illness like lung cancer. The good news is that you can drastically reduce your risk by abstaining from smoking—or, if you’re currently a smoker, by taking steps to quit as soon as possible. The negative effects of cigarette smoking on your health are numerous:
- increased risk of lung cancer
- heart disease stroke
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)
Additionally, smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in your body, like in your mouth and throat, larynx, esophagus, stomach, and liver, among others. It can damage your tongue and gums and even cause you to lose your teeth. Nicotine use can make it harder for you and your partner to get pregnant, and smoking during pregnancy presents a number of very serious risks to your developing baby. It even puts you at a 30 to 40% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The health effects of using cigarettes and other tobacco products are so devastating for your whole body that there’s simply no good reason to use any of them.
If you’re a smoker, you owe it to yourself to find the support you need to drop the habit for life. If you’re in the U.S., the CDC offers a number of valuable resources to help you on your quitting journey. It’s also worth checking in with your family doctor or general practitioner for encouragement and advice. You may be a good candidate for treatment that helps you to quit, like a nicotine patch, inhaler, or prescription medicine.
If you currently smoke or did in the past, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor if you need to begin lung cancer screening. The latest guidelines recommend annual screenings for adults ages 50 to 80 years of age who are current smokers or who smoked within the last 15 years with a 20 pack-year smoking history. A pack-year means you smoke about one pack of cigarettes every day in a year. You could have a 20 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 20 years, two packs a day for 10 years, and so on. And, of course, if you’re experiencing any of the alarming symptoms of lung cancer, like chest pain, wheezing, or coughing up blood, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.
What to Do during Lung Cancer Awareness Month
Unlike some cancers, like breast cancer and prostate cancer, there’s no self-exam you can perform for lung cancer, and many people aren’t eligible for regular screenings. That’s why Lung Cancer Awareness Month serves as such an important opportunity to spread the message about ditching tobacco. If someone you care about is a habitual smoker, it’s certainly not easy to bring up the issue of quitting, especially if you know it won’t be well received. It may be most effective for you to share information about lung health and lung cancer prevention on your social channels rather than addressing it with anyone face-to-face. It’s a far less confrontational approach that can plant the seeds of quitting in someone’s mind. Then, when the person openly expresses their desire to stop smoking, you can be there to provide support, encouragement, and love.
Not much of a social media person? There are other ways to display your support during Lung Cancer Awareness Month. You could display a lung cancer ribbon on your car, on a lawn sign, or as a pin on your clothing. The accepted color for lung cancer awareness is white or pearl, so you might try wearing white clothing or jewelry and explaining its meaning if someone compliments it. These gestures may seem small, but if you’re able to share important information about lung cancer with someone who may need it, you’ve done something good.
What will you do during Lung Cancer Awareness Month? This November, let’s make it count!