You have been coughing most of your adult life. You’ve smoked since you were 18. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. But now your cough has changed; you’ve coughed up blood.
The treatment for pneumonia doesn’t seem to have helped at all. You are still short of breath. Now your chest is beginning to ache, and you are losing your appetite and with it, weight.
The most recent set of tests have shown that you have lung cancer. You wonder if things would have been different if it had been caught earlier. You are not alone.
More than 200,000 new patients are diagnosed with lung cancer every year. We lose 160,000 to the disease every year. There are only 400,000 lung cancer survivors in the United States today.
It is hard to catch lung cancer early. You have two lungs and really can go quite awhile without symptoms.
Most people have a chronic cough and have had bronchitis or pneumonia, so they will think it is just the usual. Basically symptoms show up late in the course of the disease.
There are several different types of lung cancer. We break the categories into small cell and non-small cell lung cancer.
The small cell makes up 20 percent, while the non-small cell adenocarcinoma makes up 30 percent to 40 percent and squamous cell carcinoma makes up 30 percent.
Patients will go through an extensive workup with biopsy and X-rays. A complete workup really should include a PET scan. Nearly 40 percent of patients will have their stage of lung cancer changed based on the results of the PET.
The basic primary treatment if the lung cancer has been found early enough is surgery. If the cancer can’t be removed, then the patient is looking at radiation along with chemotherapy or radiation alone.
There have been several studies to see if we could detect lung cancer earlier. After all, the earlier we find some cancers the greater the chance we have of curing the patient.
The most recent study has looked at spiral low-dose CAT scans. These X-rays tend to find the lung cancer earlier, but they also find a lot of other things that require investigation. The study found and made a difference for 88 people but 16 people died who did not have cancer just because of all the things they ended up having done.
So, for now, there are no recommendations on screening for lung cancer.
We will keep working on our end trying to find better screening and treatment. You work on your end and stop smoking. Together, we can eliminate this horrible cancer.
Dr. Kris Gast is a board certified radiation oncologist. She has been in practice for 21 years, the last 13 at Fort Smith Radiation Oncology in Fort Smith. Her column Cancer Demystified appears the first Wednesday of every month. Send questions to Cancer Demystified, PO Box 5710, Fort Smith, AR 72908 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.