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Lung Cancer - Symptoms, Causes and Prevention Health Tips

What is Lung Cancer?

In 2011, 43,463 people in the UK were diagnosed with lung cancer and in 2012, there were 35,371 deaths from the disease.

Cancer is caused when the cells that make up the organs and tissues of our body become abnormal. Generally cells behave and divide in a controlled way to help our bodies grow, heal and repair, but when an abnormal cell keeps dividing and making more and more abnormal cells they form a lump, or tumour – some of which are cancerous.

Some cancer cells can break away from the primary cancer and travel through the body via the blood or lymphatic system. This can cause tumours elsewhere which is known as secondary cancer. Cancer that forms in the tissues of the lung, usually in the cells lining the air passages, is lung cancer.

There are two main types of lung cancer, namely, small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small-cell lung cancer is the most common type and it accounts for more than 80% of cases of lung cancer. It can either be squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma or large-cell carcinoma. Small cell lung cancer is called this because when the cancer cells are looked at under a microscope they are very small.

Small-cell lung cancer is a much less common type that usually spreads faster than non-small-cell lung cancer. The type of lung cancer you have will determine which treatments are recommended.

Women, non-smokers and people who have smoked previously are most at risk of non-small cell lung cancer. Around 35% to 40% of non-small cell lung cancers are adenocarcinoma and can spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

Given that 89% (91% in males and 87% in females) of lung cancer cases each year in the UK are linked to major lifestyle and other risk factors, it is always wise to take steps to prevent your risk of developing the disease.

Facts about Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the single biggest cancer killer in the UK, with 35,000 people dying from the disease every year. The biggest risk factor for lung disease is smoking – it is the cause of one in four cancer deaths in the UK, and has killed approximately 100 million people across the world in the last century. Your risk of lung cancer will drop as soon as you stop smoking.

Who is Affected by Lung Cancer?

It is a myth that lung cancer mainly affects older people. It is true that most cases of lung cancer develop when people are in their 60s and 70s after many years of smoking, but occasionally much younger people get lung cancer - even those in their 20s and 30s. However, it is quite rare in people younger than 40, and the incidences of lung cancer rise sharply with advancing age. Lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people aged 70-74 years.

It's also true that people who have never smoked can develop the disease, however, smoking is the main cause of approximately 90% of cases. This is because smoking involves inhaling a number of different toxic substances and this helps you to contract the disease.

The Signs and Symptoms

In its advanced stage lung cancer causes respiratory distress, but in its early stages you may not have any symptoms at all. The first symptom of lung cancer is usually a cough that doesn't go away. A persistent cough is telling you that something is wrong.

Other symptoms include an ache or pain that you get when breathing or coughing, coughing up blood or rust-coloured sputum (spit or phlegm), breathlessness or wheezing. You may notice a loss of appetite or a sudden lack of energy or an unexplained weight loss.

There are other less common symptoms to watch out for. These include:

  • Changes in the appearance of your fingers, such as becoming more curved or their ends becoming larger (this is known as finger clubbing)
  • Difficulty swallowing or an onset of pain when swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • High temperature
  • Swelling of your face or neck
  • Persistent chest or shoulder pain

Causes and Risk Factors

At this time, the precise cause of lung cancer is unknown. However, the risk factors that are common among people with the disease include the following:

  • Smoking cigarettes - around half of all regular smokers will die from their habit. Tobacco smoke contains over 60 different toxic substances, which can lead to cancer.
  • Using cigars, pipe tobacco, snuff, loose tobacco and chewing tobacco, as these are also culprits.
  • Smoking cannabis is a high risk activity. Cannabis is generally mixed with tobacco and is inhaled more deeply and held in the lungs for longer.
  • Passive smoking –research has shown that non-smoking women who share their house with a smoking partner are 25% more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smoking women who live with a non-smoking partner.
  • Air pollution
  • Previous lung disease – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, emphysema or bronchitis.
  • Family history
  • A weakened immune system – perhaps from HIV or AIDS
  • Occupational exposures – to Asbestos, silica, diesel exhaust, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, vinyl chloride, coal products, mustard gas, choloromethyl ethers and chromium compounds.
  • Radiotherapy – if you've had radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma for example.
  • Exposure to Radon - a naturally occurring radioactive gas that sometimes build up in buildings.
  • Smoking is the single biggest cause however, in reality, one in eight cases of lung cancer are not linked with smoking so if you have concerns you should seek medical advice immediately.

How to Prevent Lung Cancer

Stop Smoking! - There are a number of ways to try to prevent lung cancer with the most effective being not to ever smoke cigarettes or tobacco. If you do smoke you should stop as soon as you possibly can. For every year that you do not smoke your risk of developing serious illnesses, such as lung cancer, will decrease. Then after 10 years of not smoking, your chances of developing lung cancer will be half that of someone who does still smoke. It's important to remember that the length of time that you've smoked is important because according to experts, if you've smoked 20 a day for 40 years, your risk of lung cancer is about eight times higher than if you've smoked 40 a day for 20 years. For further information and support with giving up smoking talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

Watch Your Diet - A low-fat, high-fibre diet that includes five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day and plenty of whole grains, can help reduce your risk of lung cancer, as well as other types of cancer and heart disease. Incorporate foods high in antioxidants, such as beans, berries, prunes, and artichokes and foods high in phytoestrogens, such as soy foods (tofu, soy milk, and edamame), whole grains, sprouts (alfalfa and clover), seeds (flaxseed, sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin), and nuts.

Exercise - Research has shown that regular exercise can help to lower the risk of developing lung cancer and other types of cancer. It is recommended that adults do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Keeping physically active so that your lungs are getting a good workout.

Other Tips

  • Avoid exposure to high risk chemicals such as Radon, asbestos, arsenic, or second-hand smoke.
  • Don't have unnecessary chest X-rays.
  • Certain natural treatments are said to have had positive effects on lung cancer including flaxseed oil and cottage cheese, wheat grass /chlorophyll, coffee enemas, carrot or vegetable juice.
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