It’s not just heavy smokers who need to be aware of lung cancer symptoms, says Abi Jackson.
WHILE it’s long been associated with smoking, lung cancer can actually affect anybody even those who’ve never smoked up a cigarette in their life.
So everybody should be aware of the signs and symptoms.
“Anyone can develop lung cancer, but around 85% of cases occur in people who smoke or who used to smoke,” says Dr Penny Woods.
“The risk of getting lung cancer increases with the total number of cigarettes you’ve smoked. If you stop smoking, the risk gets less over time.”
Breathing in second-hand smoke is now also recognised as a risk factor and, as Richard S Steyn, a consultant thoracic surgeon, says: “One in eight patients will have never smoked at all.”
Exposure to certain substances, such as radon gas and asbestos, are also associated with lung cancer.
“Cancer starts out as one abnormal cell. It might take up to five years for it to multiply and grow big enough to be noticed,” says Woods.
“Often, lung cancer will not cause symptoms until the tumour becomes quite large. This means it might only be discovered when you have an X-ray or scan for a different problem,” he says.
However, there are warning signs that should not be ignored, including a cough that lasts more than three weeks, coughing up blood, feeling out of breath, wheezing, unexplained pain in the chest or shoulder area that isn’t going away, unexplained weight loss and ongoing fatigue.
“The symptoms we’re pushing most, is a cough that’s lasted three weeks or more,” says Steyn.
“Also, are you getting out of breath doing things you used to be able to do? Of course, we don’t expect somebody at 80 to do what they did at 20, but we do see people who at the age of 55 are not managing what they did at 53.
"Other symptoms include frequent chest infections, and certainly if somebody’s coughing up blood, we would consider that a red flag.”
As Steyn stresses, all of these symptoms can occur due to other causes, and don’t automatically mean you have cancer.
“Some people getting an infection cough up blood”, he says, adding that other lung conditions — such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease , emphysema, bronchitis and pneumonia, which may present with similar symptoms — are also increasingly common in older age groups.
"But the message is clear: it’s always better to get things checked quickly if you are concerned.
As with all cancers, being diagnosed early generally means a much more positive prognosis.
Steyn acknowledges there have been challenges around lung cancer awareness.
Historically, a “lot of people presented late”, he says, so survival rates were low, and there are also a lot of “negative connotations” around lung cancer because of its link with smoking
“Anyone can get it. And if we catch it earlier, it’s potentially a lot more treatable - that’s the thing we’ve got to change the belief of.
"Treatments have also changed dramatically, and also a lot of people are living much longer with lung cancer,” he says.
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