According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death—more than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers combined. Fortunately, there is a screening test available for people at the highest risk of developing lung cancer.
Let’s dive into what causes lung cancer in the first place and how to know if you’re at high risk.
What causes lung cancer?
- Smoking: The chance of developing lung cancer is much higher in smokers than in non-smokers, and smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer. Even secondhand smoke increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
- Radon: Exposure to high levels of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas found in some areas in the United States, is also a risk factor for lung cancer.
- Asbestos: Workplace exposure to asbestos fibers increases your risk.
- Other factors: Researchers have suspected other possible causes of lung cancer, such as air pollution, arsenic and diesel exhaust.
Can non-smokers develop lung cancer?
Smoking significantly increases your chances of developing lung cancer, but even someone who has never smoked at all can get lung cancer. Exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, asbestos and other carcinogens can cause lung cancer in a nonsmoker.
There are also some people who have not had any exposure to carcinogens who may develop lung cancer because there is a genetic predisposition for lung cancer in their family. There are also some patients who develop lung cancers randomly, or for reasons that physicians have not yet discovered.
What is the diagnostic test for lung cancer?
There’s good news if you’re at high risk for lung cancer. You can be screened and diagnosed before symptoms develop through the use of a low-dose CT scan.
A study conducted by the National Cancer Institute proved that screening people at high risk of lung cancer with low-dose CT scans reduced mortality from lung cancer by 20 percent. This study estimates that early detection and treatment of lung cancer could save more than 70,000 lives a year.
Candidates for the screening include:
- Current and former smokers over the age of 55
- People over 50 years old who have smoked the equivalent of one pack per day for 30 years or three packs a day for 10 years
- People with occupational exposure to other carcinogenic agents, including asbestos and diesel fumes.
It’s important to consider whether your level of individual risk is high enough for screening to be of benefit. A physician referral is required. If you think you may be at high risk for lung cancer, talk to your primary care physician.
Remember the old saying: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. I encourage everyone who qualifies for lung cancer screening to be vigilant about getting the low-dose CT scan done by their primary care physician or pulmonologist. Early detection of lung cancer can save lives.
Most common lung cancer symptoms
When a small lung cancer grows, it can eventually cause symptoms that lead to its discovery. Common symptoms include:
- Chronic cough
- Coughing up of blood
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Weight loss
Keep in mind: if you have any of these symptoms, it does not mean that you definitely have lung cancer. But you should see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated.
Treatment options for lung cancer
There are many treatments available today for people with lung cancer, and this is an exciting area of research where new treatments are being developed often. Historically, there have been three primary treatments for lung cancer: surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
If you are diagnosed with lung cancer, your care team will walk you through your options and help create a treatment plan that works best for your needs.