Each day, hundreds of Americans die of a disease that was virtually unknown 80 years ago. The rise of lung cancer is the United States — and around the world — can be traced to a single event. Although people have been using tobacco and tobacco products for more than 400 years, shortly after the turn of the century tobacco used changed. About 1912, a new tobacco was developed, a mild variety that made it possible for smokers to inhale deeply. Cigarette sales began to climb, and lung cancer rates climed with them. Today, one in 10 deaths of people in their 60s is from lung cancer. More than 125,000 Americans die every year of this disease.
The second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States is believed to be the radioactive gas radon, which is produced from the decay of uranium in the Earth into a colorless, odorless gas that seeps into homes from the surrounding soil. Radon, which has been blamed for up to 20,000 lung cancer deaths a year, recieved widespread publicity last fall when the U.S. environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report stating that excessively high radon levels in homes is considered more widespread in the United States than originally thought.
The Chemical causes
Cancer occurs when one cell begins to divide out of control, forming a tumor from a billion or so copies of itself. Along with causes we don’t yet know, a number of agents are known to cause a cancer cell to develop: radiation, viruses, and chemicals.
The lungs are at risk from certain substances that, when inhaled, causing a breakdown in the lungs’ self-cleansing mechanism. After a time, the chemical coats the delicate lining of the lung, and cells in contact with it may change to cancer cells.
Asbestos, arsenic, Chromium, coal tar, and the tars in cigarette smoke, among other substances, are carcinogens. Carcinogens are cancer-causing agents known to cause normal cells to change into cancer cells. People who are constantly exposed to these carcinogens, either in the workplace or elsewhere, are at risk for developing lung cancer.
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Diagnosing Lung Cancer
When a tumor of the lung gets large enough, it causes symptoms, including a constant, stubborn cough and chest pain. a person may feel tired all the time, may be short of breath, may lose weight, may cough up blood.
The tumor will eventually metastasize, spilling cancer cells to other lung tissue and through the body, most often to the bones, liver, or brain, where new tumors will grow, causing new symptoms.
One or more of the symptoms of lung cancer brings the patient to the doctor, who will immediately order a chest X-ray. The tumor appears as a dense, white area on the X-ray. The doctor then orders tests to learn more about the growth.
Tissue may be removed from the lung, an enlarged lymph node in the neck, or the pleural lining (the tissue between the chest wall and lung), and examined under the microscope. A bronchiscope, a long, lighted tube, may be passed down the windpipe to allow a close look at the lung. Material coughed up by the patient may be examined under the microscope. If none of these tests turns up cancer cells, an operation will be performed to examine the tumor directly.
Types of Stages
There are 11 main types of lung cancer. The four most common types are found chiefly in smokers. In fact, nearly all lung cancer is found in smokers.
A fitfth kind of lung cancer is mesothelioma, a rare tumor of the pleural lining. Though rare, it is worth mentioning because it is almost to the mineral asbestos. Six of every hundred asbestos workers will eventually die of mesothelioma. This is a disease with a long latency period. That is, 20 to 40 years may elapse between a person’s asbestos exposure and the first signs of the disease.
After determining what type of cancer a patient has, the doctor will try to discover what stage the cancer has reached. Is it a single, small tumor? Is it large? Has it spread to other parts of the lung or other organs of the body? The doctor may order more tests to answer these questions. Surgeons may open the chest to allow careful examination of tissue near the lungs. Imaging methods such as ultrasound or computer tomography may be used to find out whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Treatment and Outlook
Next, the doctor chooses a course of treatment for the patient. Lung cancer can be treated in several ways. A surgeon can remove the tumor, or the patient can undergo radiation theraphy or chemotherapy (administration of cancer-killing drugs). A combination of these treatments may also be used.
Some types of lung cancer respond best to chemotherapy and radiation; some are most successfully treated through surgery. A lung-cancer patient’s chances are best, of course, if the cancer is caught early, before it has spread. In many cases, by the time a person notices symptoms, the cancer has had a chance to spread.
Smoking and Lung cancer
It’s worth repeating: almost all lung-cancer patients are smokers.
The more a person smokes and the longer a person smokes, the better chances he or she will get the disease. a person who starts smoking at the age of 15 is 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer by the age of 35 as a non-smoker.
In study after study, the data prove coclusively that smoking causes lung cancer. Yet people continue to smoke. In fact, the average age at which teenagers are starting has gone down from 15 to 12 years.
There are some encouraging signs, however. Since 1965, when the first warnings came out about the connection between cancer and tobacco use, the percentage of Americans who smoke has slowly fallen. In the workplace, and in public places such as restaurants and passenger planes, there are new and growing bans on smoking. Support programs are now readily available to help people kick the habit.
Will lung cancer ever be rare again?
The answer is yes…if people stop smoking.