November Is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month, a time to increase emphasis on prevention and treatment options, among other issues. And when it comes to smoking, there’s both good news and bad.
First, the good news: tactics used to reduce the smoking rate are working.
“The younger generation is smoking less and less; through public education and things like that, [through] smoking cessation programs we’re definitely reducing the rate of smoking,” says Angela Nicholson, the Lung Cancer Navigator at Sacred Heart Cancer Center.
The bad news: those who quit now, may feel the effects of smoking up to 40 years from now.
“You most likely will see the effects between COPD, lung cancer, heart disease and those types of things,” said Nicholson. “But once you quit, your risk of developing cancer does decrease annually.”
When it comes to treatment, these are not your grandfather’s protocols – and maybe not even your parents’.
“We can now do surgeries that are much less invasive than when I started out in nursing,” Nicholson said. “Recovery time is much better; incisions are smaller, and we have much better outcomes because of technology.”
Chemotherapy treatment is empirical, that is, the drug selection for each individual patient is determined by clinical trials, based upon cancer type and stage. Hair loss is possible, but it grows back after treatment. The larger threat is from infection, because chemotherapy lowers the white blood cells that fight bacteria.
“The big deal is to let [patients] know that, just like cellphones, cars, and everything else – medicine has advanced; it’s not the same as it was,” said Nicholson. “That does kind of encourage them to seek treatment.”
One of the best weapons against lung cancer is a computerized tomography, or CT, scan. Nicholson says it’s relatively new, compared to other screening processes.
“It provides [3-D] images from all angles,” said Nicholson. “And it enables radiologists to see abnormalities when they’re much smaller. Studies show that it had decreased the mortality rate by 20 percent. And that is a huge number.”
CT scans for lung cancer are similar to mammograms for breast cancer, in that they’re done once a year.
Perhaps the best defense against lung cancer is to quit smoking – or never start to begin with. Nicholson says for the latter, they use schools, television and parents to get out the word. For adult smokers, quitting can begin in a smoking cessation class.
However, non-smokers are not immune from contracting lung cancer. Comedian Andy Kaufman – a non-smoker – died in 1984 at age 35, from an extremely rare type of lung cancer called large-cell carcinoma. Angela Nicholson at Sacred Heart says other factors besides tobacco can weigh in.
“Genetics – a family disposition,” said Nicholson. “Exposures to asbestos, radon or things like those. Farmers – people who are in the military back when they used asbestos to insulate the pipes on the ships.”
More information on lung cancer and smoking cessation can be found on various hospital websites, and those of the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.