Have a cough that won’t go away? Experiencing some shortness of breath, chest pain or hoarseness? Dry, windy weather and low humidity can aggravate allergies, but those symptoms could suggest something else: lung cancer. Even non-smokers can be at risk of lung cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic, so if you’ve been experiencing these symptoms and others, don’t put off a visit to your primary care physician to set your mind at ease.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, among both men and women, according to the Mayo Clinic. Surprisingly, lung cancer claims more lives each year than colon, prostate, ovarian and breast cancers combined.
People who smoke have the greatest risk of lung cancer, as well as those who have been exposed to secondhand smoke. For smokers, the risk increases with the length of time and number of cigarettes smoked, but you can significantly reduce your chances of developing it if you quit, even after many years.
However, lung cancer can also occur in people who have never smoked, nor been exposed to secondhand smoke. Other risk factors include exposure to radon gas, which is produced by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water that eventually becomes part of the air we breathe. Unsafe levels of radon can accumulate in any building, including homes. Exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens – such as arsenic, chromium and nickel – also can increase the risk of developing lung cancer, especially in smokers. Family history also plays a role.
Unfortunately, there are few signs and symptoms in lung cancer’s earliest stages, and they typically occur only when the disease is more advanced. In addition to the lingering cough, shortness of breath, chest pain and hoarseness, other symptoms can include coughing up blood, even a small amount; losing weight without trying; bone pain and a headache. Shortness of breath occurs if the cancer grows enough to block the major airways. Lung cancer can also cause fluid to accumulate around the lungs, making it harder for the affected lung to expand fully when inhaling. Cancer can cause bleeding in the airways, which can cause you to cough up blood.
Doctors believe smoking damages the cells that line the lungs. Cigarette smoke is full of cancer-causing substances, and when inhaled it changes the lung tissue almost immediately. At first your body may be able to repair this damage, but with each repeated exposure, cells that line the lungs become increasingly damaged.
Lung cancer is divided into two major types – small cell and non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell is found almost exclusively in heavy smokers and is less common. Non-small cell lung cancer is term for several types of lung cancers, including squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
If you are concerned about radon gas, have your home tested. It is not a large problem in Solano County, but for more information on radon testing, contact the Solano County Department of Public Health or a local chapter of the American Lung Association.
Sally Wyatt is a public relations specialist with NorthBay Healthcare in Fairfield, which is a member of the Solano Coalition for Better Health.