The following content is created in partnership with University of Maryland Capital Region Health. It does not reflect the work or opinions of the NBC Washington editorial staff. Click here to learn more about University of Maryland Capital Region Health.
Lung cancer and tobacco use are closely aligned in the public consciousness, and while that’s not completely misguided, the false sense of security it breeds among non-smokers certainly is. This leads to non-smokers ignoring risk factors and warning signs.
The fact is, there may be other sources of lung cancer lurking in your home (or your genetics), but through education and awareness, it’s possible to improve treatment and survival rates. Additionally, a handy Lung Cancer Health Risk Assessment can help you learn about your own risk of lung cancer in just a few minutes.
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Lung Cancer Facts and Symptoms
As the name suggests, lung cancer begins in the tissues of the lungs and affects respiratory functions. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths nationwide, predominantly occurring among older populations, above age 65.
There are two main types of lung cancer -- non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Under the two main types other subtypes of lung cancer are categorized together because of their cell-type and similar treatments.
NSCLC accounts for 80 percent of lung cancers and is characterized by the formation of a mass called a tumor, lesion, or nodule. SCLC accounts for about 20 percent of lung cancers and often starts in the bronchi, which serve as central passageways to the lungs.
Because symptoms and signs of lung cancer don’t typically occur until the cancer is advanced, early detection is key to improving survival from either type of lung cancer, according to Dr. Ashutosh Sachdeva, interventional pulmonologist for University of Maryland Capital Region Health. “That’s where we’re trying to move the needle,” says Dr. Sachdeva, “towards the early stage rather than being diagnosed at a later stage when it’s harder for us to treat and the outcomes can be less optimal.” The most common symptoms include persistent coughing, chest pain, wheezing, shortness of breath, fatigue, and coughing up blood. Lung cancer that has spread to other parts of the body may cause symptoms such as back or hip pain, yellowing of the skin and eyes, swollen lymph nodes, and nervous system problems like headaches, dizziness and seizures.
Lung Cancer Risk Factors: Smoking and Beyond
By and large, smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, with cigarette smoking being linked to about 90 percent of lung cancer cases and 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths in the United States.
But not everyone who develops lung cancer has a history of smoking and this is a particularly concerning when considering the statistics for women. Although men still make up the majority of lung cancer diagnoses, recent statistics indicate that women are increasingly being diagnosed with lung cancer. Approximately 20 percent of women diagnosed with lung cancer today are lifelong non-smokers compared to just 8 percent of men. A particular type of NSCLC, adenocarcinoma, is more commonly seen in non-smokers and, when diagnosed early, has the highest chance of achieving a cure.
It is also worth noting some important racial disparities among lung cancer patients. In Prince George’s County, for example, white residents are the most likely to develop lung cancer, while Hispanic lung cancer patients are comprised of a substantially greater proportion of never-smokers compared to their non-Hispanic white counterparts. This means Hispanic residents are more likely to be affected by factors like family history, exposure to toxins, and secondhand smoke. They are also 29 percent less likely to be diagnosed at an early stage. Nationwide, adults who are exposed to secondhand smoke increase their risk of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent.
After smoking, radon exposure is the leading cause of lung cancer nationwide. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that forms when radioactive metals break down in rocks, solid and groundwater. As it only exists in trace amounts in the atmosphere, it is not generally a health concern until it becomes trapped in buildings and homes through gaps and cracks. Though it is colorless and odorless, radon is responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year and nearly 1 in 15 homes in the US have high levels of radon. Some other toxins that can increase the risk of developing lung cancer include asbestos, arsenic, and diesel exhaust.
Some additional risk factors include previous radiation therapy to lungs, as well as a personal or family history of lung cancer; in other words, if you’ve had lung cancer already, or if a relative has had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing lung cancer.
Reducing the Risk
First and foremost, smokers can substantially reduce their risk of developing lung cancer by quitting smoking tobacco. In fact, the US has seen a reduction in new lung cancer cases over the last few decades thanks to a decrease in tobacco consumption, and Prince George’s County is no exception—since 2003, the Maryland county has seen a reduction of lung cancer incidence from 54.4 to 42.2 per 100,000 residents.
And while risk factors like family history and essential radiation therapy are not entirely controllable, regular doctor visits and addressing potential symptoms as early as possible increase the success rate of any treatment. With regard to controllable factors, there are solutions to health risks associated with radon and other pollutants like radon test kits, improving ventilation using fans and vents, sealing cracks in floors and walls, and using air purifiers to capture other pollutants. You can also check your state radon office for more resources.
As with all health-related issues, knowledge is power, and utilizing resources that help you better understand your health status and risk factors can also improve future outcomes. For example, the Lung Cancer Health Risk Assessment offered by University of Maryland Capital Region health is free to use and provides a quick and easy way to better understand your risk of lung cancer so you can better prioritize your health today.
Why take your health for granted when you can be proactive instead? Take the Lung Cancer Health Risk Assessment today from University of Maryland Capital Region Health to learn where you stand. Our experts are ready to assist you if you still have questions regarding lung cancer detection, prevention, or risk factors. Click here to learn more about University of Maryland Capital Region Health.