We have a long road ahead of us with lung cancer in the United States. Around 1953, lung cancer became the most common cause of cancer deaths in men. In 1985, it became the leading cause of cancer deaths in women (meaning even more than breast cancer). Things are improving a little now. Because of a decrease in smoking, lung cancer deaths have begun to decline in men and are leveling off in women. But, there is still more we all can do to help.
- Discourage others from using tobacco products.
- Quit smoking.
- Go in early if you suspect something.
- Take care of yourself.
Smoking accounts for nearly 90 percent of all lung cancers. The risk of developing lung cancer for a current smoker of one pack per day for 40 years is approximately 20 times that of someone who has never smoked. Prevention is always better than cure! Make it a point to not expose loved ones to smoking. Children who grow up in smoking households are at risk for a whole host of problems, even before they are born (poor growth before birth and premature birth), and after: sudden infant death syndrome, frequent ear infections, asthma, and lung cancer later in life.
Quit smoking. This is not easy, but it pays off in so many ways. The first payback is on your pocketbook (it is cheaper not to smoke—and not just the cost of a pack or carton, but in dollars you spend on your health). Second, your blood flow will improve. In 24 hours, you cut down your risk of having a heart attack. In one year, you cut down that risk by 50 percent. And in 15 years, your risk of a heart attack is the same as a non-smoker. Third, your breathing will get better. In three to nine months, your lung function will improve and you will be able to clear a lung infection better. Fourth, you decrease your risk of lung cancer if you can abstain for at least 10 years. At The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, we offer free smoking cessation programs to help you through this. http://www.cinj.org/education/tobacco-dependence-program.
While the majority of patients with lung cancer come in with advanced disease—probably due to how this cancer acts and our limits in screening over the years —we hope to change that. If you have smoked more than 100 cigarettes in your life, please keep track of these symptoms and ask your doctor is further evaluation is needed. If you have never really had a cough before and either smoke now or did so in the past, get checked out. A cough with blood is even more concerning, but just as difficult to pinpoint the cause. If you have a hoarse voice that has come on suddenly and does not go away, please alert your doctor to this. While these and other symptoms can be seen in patients with cancer, they can be seen in non-cancer cases, too. We at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey participated in a lung cancer screening trial that has shown great promise. We are now working on a permanent screening program.
Take care of yourself. Medicine keeps proving this fact over and over again: people who eat well, sleep well, and stay social and active do better in life. A person’s overall health matters. It has a direct impact on the cancer treatment options doctors will be able to offer. People who are healthy enough for treatment do better with it and afterwards.
Sujani Ganga Surakanti, MD, is a medical oncologist in the Thoracic Oncology Program at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor of medicine at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.