Lung cancer is a frightening condition that is unfortunately all too common in our society. But the best way to deal with a disease like lung cancer is to learn everything we can about it. Most lung cancer is preventable, and that is good news. But if you or a loved one is diagnosed with it, it is very helpful to investigate the specifics of the type and the stage of development it has reached. Knowledge is power when it comes fighting and preventing disease, so let’s see what we can discover about lung cancer.
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer is a condition whereby cells of the tissues in the lungs grow abnormally out of control, and form groups of cancerous cells called tumors. Lung cancer is a particularly heinous form of cancer because the location of the lungs gives them easy access to many blood vessels and lymph tissues of the body, thereby often enabling fast and extensive spread of lung cancer to other areas of the body. It is also difficult to diagnose most lung cancers in the earliest stages since there are often no discernable symptoms until the disease has advanced to the point where recovery is difficult.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer related deaths among both men and women in the United States. This has been true for men for many years, but it wasn’t until 1987 that lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in women. This is most likely due to increased numbers of women smokers. Speaking of smoking, cigarette smoking is responsible for the vast majority of lung cancer cases, accounting for about 90%. Lung cancer is rarely found in younger people, with most cases being first diagnosed after the age of 50. The incidence in Caucasian American men is actually decreasing, due to fewer numbers of smokers. However, lung cancer is on the rise in African American men and in women of both races. Studies have shown that women tend to inhale cigarette smoke more deeply than men, and they are less likely to quit smoking as well. Incidentally, statistics tell us that the greatest number of new smokers are teenaged girls.
How Does Lung Cancer Originate?
Perhaps a bit of anatomy regarding the structure of the lungs and adjacent areas will help us to better understand how lung cancer occurs.
The lungs are a pair of large, spongy-like organs located one on each side of the chest. They are separated by a structure called the mediastinum, which is an area of the middle chest containing critical body parts such as the heart, esophagus, and the trachea (windpipe) as well as a myriad of lymph nodes and blood vessels, including the aorta, one of the major blood vessels of the body. Each lung is divided into lobes, and the right lung is a bit larger than the left, being composed of three lobes versus two in the left lung.
There are two major pathways that allow air to enter the lungs when you inhale. They are called the bronchi, and are connected to the trachea. Inside the lungs, the bronchi subdivide into approximately one million tiny airways called bronchioles, each with a tiny air sac called an alveoli attached to the end of it. The alveoli are critical structures, for it is here that oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream and waste products such as carbon dioxide are enabled to leave the body when you exhale.
The tissues of the lungs and related structures such as the trachea and bronchioles are composed of specialized, rectangular-shaped cells called columnar epithelium, as well as glands that produce mucous and other fluids needed by the lungs. These columnar epithelium normally divide and multiply on a regular basis as they are needed. However, when these cells become damaged by cancerous agents (carcinogens), they can begin to reproduce uncontrollably, even when they are not needed by the body. Constant irritation over time may eventually cause normal cells to become cancerous, and they then begin to multiply. Because of the proximity of so many lymph nodes and blood vessels, the cancer can then quickly spread to other areas of the body.
What Are the Causes of Lung Cancer?
As mentioned above, cigarette smoking is responsible for about 90% of lung cancer cases. Tobacco smoke is composed of an amazing 3500+ chemicals, and at least 40 of them are known carcinogens. In addition, this highly poisonous gas also contains radioactive compounds and several heavy metals such as cadmium and nickel.
Besides smoking, the other leading causes of lung cancer include:
- Radon: Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is a natural byproduct of the radioactive breakdown of uranium that is found in soil, rocks, and water. The greatest levels of radon are found in residences that are built on soils that have high amounts of uranium in them. It is very advisable to conduct a radon test in any home you are considering buying or renting. They are inexpensive, readily available, and easy to administer, and they may just save your life or the lives of your family.
- Secondhand smoke: Exposure to someone else’s cigarette smoke, especially on a regular basis, greatly increases your chances of contracting lung cancer. Some studies have found that second hand smoke is even more chemically toxic than smoking yourself.
- Marijuana smoking: Marijuana smoke is even more toxic than tobacco smoke in some ways. For one thing, it is not regulated, and a user never knows what chemicals were applied to the plants. Secondly, pot smokers inhale the smoke deeply and hold it in their lungs for as long as possible before exhaling. Years of pot smoking significantly increases one’s risk for lung cancer.
- Industrial chemicals and contaminants: Exposure to carcinogenic substances, often in the workplace, is also a leading contributor to lung cancer. Some of the most common offenders are nickel chromates, vinyl chloride, and asbestos. If you work in an environment that exposes you to these or any other known carcinogens, be sure to avail yourself of every possible safety precaution.
- Note: If you are exposed to any of these factors, and you smoke cigarettes as well, your chances of lung cancer are increased even more dramatically. Smoking plus other major factors ups the risk for lung cancer exponentially.
What Are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer?
The most common signs of lung cancer include:
- “Smoker’s cough” (a chronic cough that does not go away)
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood, even minute amounts (bloody or brownish sputum)
- Hoarseness that last more than two weeks
- Repeated bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia
- Swelling of the neck and/or face
- Chronic unexplained fever
- Loss of appetite
If the cancer has spread to other organs of the body, symptoms may also include:
- Bone fractures
- Blood clots
Lung cancer is classified according to where it has formed, and how much it has advanced. The stages are as follows (from least critical to worst):
- Stage 0: Cancer that is limited to the lining of the airways, and has not yet advanced into the lungs.
- Stage I: The cancer has invaded lung tissue, but has not spread into the lymph system.
- Stage II: Cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes or into the chest wall
- Stage IIIA: The disease has spread into lymph tissue at the center of the chest.
- Stage IIIB: Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body within the mediastinum, such as the heart, blood vessels, esophagus, or trachea.
- Stage IV: Cancer that has invaded other regions of the body such as the bones, liver, or brain.
Are There Different Types of Lung Cancer?
Yes, there are several different categories. Lung cancer is classified into two major types: small cell and non-small cell.
- Small cell lung cancer is less common, accounting for about 25% of cases, but it is a very aggressive form of lung cancer that is found almost exclusively in smokers. Most of the time it has spread to other body tissues (metastasized) by the time it is diagnosed, and the survival rate for small cell lung cancer in patients using allopathic treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy is very low. Surgery is usually not an option due to the typical advanced and widespread nature of small cell by the time it is discovered.
- Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common type, making up about 75% of cases. It is not usually as aggressive as small cell, and sometimes, if it is caught early enough and confined to a small area, surgery may be an option. There are four major subtypes of non-small cell:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of lung cancer begins in the cells of the air passages. This is the most common type of lung cancer found in males.
- Adenocarcinoma: This cancer typically forms in the cells responsible for producing mucous in the lungs. It is most common in non-smokers or people who have been extensively exposed to second-hand smoke. It is also the most common form of lung cancer found in females.
- Large cell carcinoma: Forms mainly in the peripheral or “outer” parts of the lungs.
- Bronchoaveolar carcinoma: This rarest form of non-small cell lung cancer is usually relatively slow growing, and is found more often in smokers than in non-smokers. It also tends to form in multiple locations simultaneously.
What Treatments Are Available for Lung Cancer?
The answer to this question depends largely on the type of lung cancer and the extent to which it has spread. Surgery is sometimes an option, but only with non-small cell lung cancer that is caught early and localized. Surgical treatment is not always a permanent cure, as there is a chance that the cancer will return within 5 years after surgery. Also, some patients with other health conditions, such as emphysema for example, are often not well enough to tolerate surgery.
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are helpful to some victims of certain forms of lung cancer, but often the cure is worse than the cause. Some of the worst side effects of these therapies can include hair loss, infertility, bleeding, damage to the kidneys and other organs, and weakening of the immune system which lessens the body’s ability to fight the cancer and opens one up to other infections. If you are diagnosed with lung cancer, work with a naturopath or MD who is receptive to alternative medicine. Educate yourself as much as possible about the specifics of your condition, and make your decisions based on the facts, not merely on what your doctors tell you. If you decide to go with chemo or radiation, there are excellent regimens that can provide natural support to your body and help you tolerate these therapies much better.
Obviously, living a lifestyle that helps avoid lung cancer is the best option. Use common sense and don’t smoke (quit if you do), avoid known carcinogens (secondhand smoke, radon, etc.), and eat a healthy diet that will keep your immune system strong and able to fight off any type of disease better. 90% of lung cancer can be prevented simply by not smoking. As with all wellness issues, prevention is definitely the best medicine.