Main cause of lung cancer is smoking

HANCOCK – According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention most recent available data, in 2009 205,974 people in the United States were diagnosed with lung cancer, and 158,081 people died from the disease. According to Dr. Lloyd Geddes, oncologist at Portage Health, early detection and treatment of lung cancer are key to prolonging life and even curing patients.

“The benefits of catching lung cancer early is the lower the stage or the earlier the stage the more likely we’re able to go in and be able to treat patients,” Geddes said. “If you treat them at an earlier stage, the higher the incidence of cure. Oftentimes if we catch lung cancer in the later stages, stage 3B or stage 4, then the treatment no longer becomes a surgical option. It’s more likely chemotherapy or radiation treatment, but at that point we’re not really treating for cure but to control the disease and prolong survival.”

Early symptoms of lung cancer include shortness of breath and coughing. As the patient progresses into later stages, they can show constitutional symptoms such as chest pain, fevers, chills, night sweats and weight loss. Lung cancer is a result of lifestyle which, for most patients, means a history of smoking.

“It’s really environmental or lifestyle. And when I say environmental or lifestyle, the main cause of lung cancer is smoking – 85 percent of patients that have lung cancer have a smoking history,” Geddes said. “Either they smoked or they were exposed to second hand smoke. Other predisposing causes are workplace related – whether they’re exposed to asbestos, whether they’re exposed to ionizing radiation, that sort of thing. Those are some of the main risk factors but it’s mostly tobacco.”

While any patient concerned about lung cancer should consult a doctor, the American Cancer Society and United States Preventive Task Force has identified a group of high risk patients who they recommend should undergo annual screening for lung cancer.

“Recently the American Cancer Society in addition to the United States Preventive Task Force looked at the data from the national lung screening trial and they have new guidelines wherein we should be screening patients that are between the ages of 55 to 79 with a 30 pack year history, meaning that they’ve smoked at least one pack a day for 30 years,” Geddes said. “Those patients, studies have shown, should actually get an annual low-dose helical CT scan in order to look for early lung cancer.”

Annual screening is not advised for everyone. The low-dose CT scan will reduce the amount of overall radiation to which the patient is exposed. The recommended annual screenings are limited to high risk groups because the benefits of finding lung cancer outweigh the risks associated with screening and diagnosis, including potentially invasive diagnostic tests such as biopsies or even surgery.

“With any screening you basically go out and cast a net and try to pick up as much disease as possible. But as you go out and cast that net, you end up picking up some false positives, said Geddes. “So patients who are false positive, meaning that the screening test came up positive but as we do more tests it turns out its actually not a cancer, so what you end up doing is exposing these patients to additional screening tests on top of invasive interventions, whether they be biopsies or even surgeries sometimes. For patients who are not in that high risk group, the benefits do not necessarily outweigh the risks.”

Any patient who is concerned about lung cancer should consult their doctor. According to Geddes, there is one main prevention technique for patients to avoid lung cancer.

“The big thing is obviously don’t smoke. If you haven’t started smoking, don’t. If you have, then stop,” Geddes said.

Many resources are available to smokers who wish to stop smoking. Cessation techniques include alternative nicotine supplies, such as patches or gums, lifestyle changes and even medication. Although patients can be hesitant to admit their smoking habits to a doctor, Geddes encourages them to do so.

“Knowing and dealing with the issue is half the battle. You’re really looking at saving your life and prolonging your life,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s about trying to save lives.”