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Lung cancer

closeup of the hand of a young caucasian man breaking a lit cigarette with his fingers Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the most common cancer detected throughout the world in both men and women. The incidence of lung cancer has been on the rise since the industrial revolution, and has been steadily growing because of globalisation and smoking. It was considered as a rare disease in the beginning of 20th century, but now it tops the list of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Smoking has been and continues to be one of the major risk factors for lung cancer. Women seem to have a higher risk as compared to men at the same levels of smoking.

Smoking

Smokers are at 25 times higher risk of developing lung cancer when compared to non-smokers. Tobacco in any form, whether it is cigarettes, cigars or beedis doesn't seem to alter the risk. In fact, there is no difference between filtered and non-filtered cigarettes. The risk of lung cancer increases with duration of smoking and the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Those who start smoking at a younger age tend to have a higher risk. Passive smoking is another risk factor associated with lung cancer. Here are other risk factors for lung cancer:
* Occupational exposures to arsenic, asbestos, chromium, nickel etc.
* Air pollution, both outdoors and indoors, especially indoor burning of biomass fuel.
* Genetic predisposition to the disease. The possibility of siblings and children developing lung cancer increases if there is a family history of lung cancer.

Symptoms

Unfortunately, the symptoms of lung cancer are non-specific and variable. This often delays the diagnosis at an early stage. The cough is the most common symptom, any cough or a recent change in the character of cough in a person with risk factors should not be neglected, as it could be the initial evidence of this disease. Other symptoms include blood in the sputum, loss of appetite and excessive weight loss. Chest pain can be present in 25 to 50% of cases.
Other less common symptoms include hoarseness of voice and difficulty in breathing. The treatment depends upon the stage of lung cancer at the time of diagnosis. It is important for patients suffering from these symptoms to get themselves screened as soon as possible in order to catch this cancer at the earlier stages, where curative treatment is still a possibility.

Treatment

Surgical removal of the cancerous part of the lung can be done in the early stages. However, most patients get diagnosed at the later stage with majority of them in stage 4. At this stage, curative treatment is impossible. They can be treated with chemotherapy and radiation. Recent studies have shown that there are specific mutations in the cancerous cells, which if identified, can be treated with a newer generation of drugs called molecular agents that have shown promising results and have prolonged the survival rates even among patients in the last stages.
Let's take a look at the steps that can be taken to avoid the disease:
* Avoiding consumption of tobacco in any form is the best way to prevent lung cancer. Former smokers are shown to have a lesser risk of developing the disease when compared to smokers.
* Occupations that involve exposures to carcinogens should be avoided and necessary precautions should be taken at workplace to minimise the level of exposure.
* A healthy diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants, has been proven to keep lung cancer at bay.
* E-cigarettes should not be prescribed in place of cigarettes, as the evidence is not yet clear regarding the risks of lung cancer in e-cigarette smokers.
* Indoor cooking with biomass fuel should be discouraged. Ensure good ventilation in the house to avoid indoor air pollution.
Early detection and treatment is crucial for successful outcomes and cure of lung cancer.

(The author is consultant pulmonologist, BGS Gleneagles Global Hospital)

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