Medical Column: Lung Cancer

By: Dr. Jermaine Robinson

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among men and women in the United States and around the world. Data from the American Cancer Society estimates approximately 234,000 new cases of lung cancer diagnoses and approximately 154,000 lung cancer-related deaths in the United States every year.

Cancer is a disease in which the cells in your body grow out of control. When these unruly cells start in the lungs, we call it lung cancer. Cancer can spread to tissues that fight infection, called lymph nodes, or can spread to other organs in the body including the bones, liver, or brain. Smoking causes the vast majority of lung cancers. Inhaled cigarette smoke, which contains many cancer-causing substances called carcinogens, damages the cells in the lungs. Initially, your body can repair the damaged lung tissue, however, after repeated exposure to cigarette smoke, the damaged cells no longer act normal and eventually transform into cancer cells. Lung cancer can also occur in people who have never smoked before. Lung cancer in non-smokers can be caused by repeated exposure to secondhand smoke, air pollution, radon, and workplace exposures including asbestos and diesel exhaust.

There are several ways to reduce your risk of lung cancer, the most important of which, is not smoking. If you have never smoked, do not start now. If you do smoke, stop now. Talk with a family doctor about options that can help you to quit smoking. Other ways to reduce your risk of lung cancer include avoiding secondhand smoke. Additionally, protect yourself against potential workplace carcinogens by following your place of employment’s guidelines including wearing a mask or other protective equipment when the potential for exposure exists.

Like many other diseases,  prevention, rather than screening, is the most worthwhile approach to reduce your risk of lung cancer and its complications. However, for individuals with a high risk of lung cancer, screening is recommended to detect lung cancer at a very early stage. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual screening for lung cancer for adults aged 50 to 80 years who have a 20-year pack-year smoking history and are currently smoking or have quit smoking in the past 15 years. A pack-year is a measure of smoking exposure that calculates how long you have smoked and how much you have smoked in your lifetime.

If you are at high risk for developing lung cancer, your family doctor will recommend you undergo a low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan. During an LDCT scan, an X-ray machine will scan your chest to make a detailed image of your lungs for your doctor to review. Because the LDCT is far more sensitive at detecting lung than a plain chest X-ray, screening with LDCT has the potential to significantly reduce the chances of you dying from lung cancer, if detected. However, screening is not an alternative to stopping smoking. Quitting and avoiding cigarette smoke is the best way to significantly lower your risk of developing lung cancer.