November 8, 2015

Let's Talk About Lung Cancer 2015

We are well into November and Lung Cancer Awareness Month. I hope you've had a chance to bring up lung cancer in conversation sometime this month to help raise awareness to this rarely spoken of, and thus much underfunded, disease. Here are some topics and facts that may stir up some conversation, if not at least spark your interest in lung cancer.

1. The smoking stigma. It's simply not true. It's certainly not helpful. Whether or not someone gets lung cancer from smoking or not, the smoking stigma hurts us all. Lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer in Canada, US and worldwide yet it receives very little attention, very little compassion and a disproportionately low amount of funding for research (per cancer death) and the smoking stigma is largely to blame. Why? The misconception that only smokers get lung cancer leads to the belief, then, that lung cancer is self-inflicted, that we are to blame for our disease and that we don't deserve the same support, compassion, or chances of survival. This is cruel and unfair. Whenever I see a smoker, I now understand they are someone with an addiction. Fortunately, with widespread anti-smoking campaigns (although we really need to move beyond this!), everyone knows that smoking is bad for you. The truth is, the majority of smokers have managed to quit their nicotine addiction; certainly a difficult addiction to break. In fact, up to 80% of those diagnosed with lung cancer are non smokers (15-20% have never smoked and 40-60% quit smoking years even decades ago). Yet we are still made to feel that we deserve this, that we don't deserve any support. NO ONE DESERVES CANCER. Anyone diagnosed with cancer deserves a fair chance at life regardless of past lifestyle choices. Stop talking about who deserves what and learn the facts about lung cancer, show support and empathy toward those affected, give lung cancer the attention it deserves and maybe one day, the donations and research dollars, that are desperately needed to save lives, will match the incredible magnitude of this disease. 

2. The incidence of lung cancer in never smokers is on the rise. In one study, it doubled (13% to 28%) between 2008 and 2014. According to the article reporting these findings, women make up 2/3rds of that group. The reason for this is still unclear. However, based on my own research, the HER2 mutation, known to cause breast cancer, has also been found in a small percentage of lung cancer patients. In addition, journal articles published recently stated that there may be a link between estrogen receptor expression and lung cancer.

3. Awareness and early detection save lives. Do you know what lung cancer symptoms to watch out for? 

A new cough that doesn't go away
Changes in a chronic cough
Coughing up blood
Shortness of breath
Shoulder, back and/or chest pain
Repeated bouts of pneumonia/bronchitis

Lung cancer typically doesn't cause symptoms in its early stages. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms are noticed, the disease is already advanced. The best way to detect lung cancer early, and saves lives, is to establish a screening test. If you are a smoker, former smoker or have a family history of lung cancer, ask your family doctor for low dose CT chest scans annually. Attempts are being made in Canada to get approval of annual CT scans for those at risk of lung cancer. This wouldn't have helped me, since routine screening isn't recommended for non-smokers, but it could potentially save thousands of lives, and raise our overall 5 year survival rate well above 17%. 

4. So if it's not smoking, what else could be causing lung cancer? Radon is a naturally occurring, colourless and odourless gas that seeps from soil into homes. It’s the second leading cause of lung cancer, but the first among non smokers.  Recently, research at the University of Calgary found that as many as 1 in 5 Southern Alberta homes have levels of radon exceeding Health Canada’s maximum acceptable amount. Radon gas levels in homes vary across regions. Order a radon test kit (about $45) and get started on checking your levels today. It certainly made me feel better knowing that the air I am breathing in at home everyday is safe, at least from radon. 

Other possible contributory causes of lung cancer include air pollution, workplace carcinogens, and cancer treatment. According to the WHO, in 2010 air pollution caused 223,000 deaths worldwide. Be aware of what you are breathing into your lungs.