Lung cancer: the silent killer
December 09, 2019 | Farah Jassawalla

Lung cancer: the silent killer

Lung cancer is a disease that is widely associated with people who smoke; however, the sad reality is that not everyone who is diagnosed with lung cancer lights up. As it is not very common for non-smokers to undergo screening for lung cancer, the disease may go undetected for quite some time prior to a proper diagnosis being made.

What is lung cancer?

Normal bodily functions work by programming the cells to divide at a particular stage in the life cycle of the cell to prevent overgrowth. Cancer is a situation where this instruction by the body is disobeyed, and the cells grow and begin to divide when they are not supposed to.
Lung cancer is the disease whereby the cells in the lungs keep dividing uncontrollably in the lungs, which are vital organs for gas exchange and breathing. Lung cancer leads to the growth of a tumour that reduces the breathing ability of an individual.
Although anyone can be a potential lung cancer patient, the disease is more common for smokers as compared to non-smokers. The risk of lung cancer increases for an individual who has had high exposure to smoke, toxins, and chemicals - even if this exposure was a long time ago.

Symptoms of lung cancer

Generally, the signs for lung cancer do not start to show up until the condition has become very severe and has reached a later stage. However, it is common for people to recognize symptoms that they do not associate with cancer and can take them lightly.
A list of these symptoms is as follows:
• Loss of appetite
• Change in the voice (such as hoarseness)
• Persistent chest infections (such as pneumonia)
• Shortness of breath
• Coughing up blood
• Persistent cough
• Chest pain
• Asthma diagnosis
• Wheezing
• Weight loss

Diagnosis of lung cancer

When your doctor identifies a specific lesion on the lung cancer screening, or if you have been experiencing symptoms that could indicate potential lung cancer, you might be advised to undergo some diagnostic tests to confirm whether or not there is a tumour in the lungs.
Examples of these tests include:
-    Imaging studies: these include computed tomography (CT) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans that can help in identifying areas of tissues associated with cancer. Bone scans are very helpful to indicate cancerous growth. Doctors also use these scans to track the progress of cancer treatment.
-    Tissue sampling: a sample of lung tissue is used to test whether cancerous cells have started developing or not. There are different methods of taking a sample of the tissue, which are dependent on the location of the lesion. One such example is bronchoscopy, where the doctor inserts a lighted thin scope with a camera to see the lesion and obtain samples. Lesions in less accessible areas in the body may require thoracic surgery in order to obtain a sample of the tissue.
-    Lab testing: the doctor may recommend blood tests or sputum tests to test for cancerous cells. These tests are helpful for doctors in determining what type and what stage of lung cancer has been diagnosed.

Early diagnosis is better than late diagnosis

Early diagnosis of any disease is beneficial, but in the case of lung cancer, it can be particularly lifesaving. The reason for this is that the cancerous cells have the ability to travel to other parts of the body before the doctor can detect them in the lungs. If the cells spread, it can make the treatment much more difficult.
According to the American Lung Association, candidates for a screening of lung cancer are:
-    People between 55-80 years of age
-    People who have been smoking for about 30 years/ have been smoking one pack per day for 30 years
-    People who are currently smoking

Stages of lung cancer:

Occult or hidden: when the tumour is not detected on screening images but can be detected in mucus.
Stage 0: abnormal cells are seen only in the top layers of the cells. 
Stage I: the tumour has developed in the lung, but is less than 5 centimetres and has also not spread to any other part of the body. 
Stage II: the tumour is less than 5cm but may have spread to lymph nodes, or the tumour is less than 7cm but has spread to nearby tissues (not to the lymph nodes). 
Stage III: the lymph nodes are cancerous and cancer has spread to other parts of the lung including the area surrounding it. 
Stage IV: cancer has spread farther out to distant parts of the body (such as brain or bones).

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Farah Jassawalla

Farah Jassawalla is a graduate of the Lahore School of Economics. She is also a writer, and healthcare enthusiast, having closely observed case studies while working with Lahore's thriving general physicians at their clinics.