According to Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality healthcare, lung cancer is not widely known in South Africa, despite being a leading cause of cancer death in our country.
In light of November being Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Affinity Health discusses the importance of early detection and how to recognise the signs and symptoms of this common but deadly cancer.
Did you know that lung cancer is the most common type of cancer globally, with an estimated 2.1 million new cases and 1.8 million deaths annually? Approximately two-thirds of lung cancer patients are diagnosed after cancer has spread to other body parts.
Sadly, even with surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, lung cancer patients have one of the lowest five-year survival rates. However, if lung cancer is discovered at an early stage, when it is small and has not spread, it is more likely to be successfully treated.
“Lung cancer is one of the top three cancers in men in South Africa, and it ranks seventh in women. It kills more people yearly than combined breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer. While there has been a flood of new life-extending treatments for lung cancer in recent years, it remains a lethal disease,” says Murray Hewlett, CEO of Affinity Health. Murray has led Affinity’s dramatic growth for over 10 years. The organisation currently offers financial services to hundreds of thousands of South Africans.
What Is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer begins in the lungs and has the potential to spread to lymph nodes or other organs, including the brain. Cancer can spread to the lungs from other organs.
Lung cancers are typically classified into small and non-small cells (including adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma). Different types of lung cancer developments are treated in different ways.
What Are the Lung Cancer Risk Factors?
Research has discovered several risk factors that may increase lung cancerrisk.
Smoking: The most common cause of lung cancer is cigarette smoking. Other tobacco products, such as cigars or pipes, also raise the risk of lung cancer.
Secondhand Cigarette Smoke: Secondhand smoke (smoke from other people’s cigarettes, pipes, or cigars) also causes lung cancer.
Personal or Family Lung Cancer History: If you have had lung cancer, there is a chance that you will develop it again, especially if you smoke. If your parents, brothers or sisters, or children have had lung cancer, your risk may be increased.
Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer
There are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer, so individuals at high risk must undergo regular screening.
Lung cancer signs and symptoms that typically appear when the disease is advanced may include:
- A new cough that won’t go away
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia
- Blood in your mucous
- Breathing difficulties
- Chest ache
- Weight loss
- Bone pain
- Yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
- Dizziness, balance problems, or seizures
If you are concerned about any persistent signs or symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor.
Staging Lung Cancer
Staging lung cancer helps healthcare professionals and individuals decide on a suitable course of treatment. Healthcare professionals typically use tumour size and spread to describe the stages of lung cancer. These stages are:
Occult or hidden: The cancer is not visible on imaging scans, but cancerous cells may be found in phlegm or mucus.
Stage 0: Only the top layers of cells lining the airways have abnormal cells.
Stage 1: A lung tumour is 4 centimetres (cm) or less in size and has not spread to other body parts.
Stage 2: The tumour is 7 cm or less in diameter and has spread to nearby tissues and lymph nodes.
Stage 3: Cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and other areas of the lung and surrounding area.
Stage 4: Cancer has spread to other body parts, such as the bones or the brain.
Lung Cancer Complications
As lung cancer progresses, it can lead to several complications due to side effects from certain cancer treatments or cancer spreading to other body parts.
Lung cancer complications include the following:
Superior vena cava syndrome: Tumours in the upper right lung can prevent blood from flowing through the superior vena cava, a large vein that connects the upper body to the heart. Superior vena cava syndrome, a condition characterised by facial swelling, dizziness, and loss of consciousness, may result.
Metastasis: In advanced stages, Lung cancer can spread to other body parts, such as the brain, bones, and adrenal glands.
Lung infections: Due to decreased immune function caused by cancer or certain cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, people with lung cancer are more likely to develop lung infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis.
Heart blockage: Though uncommon, lung cancer can spread to the heart and compress or obstruct the veins and arteries, resulting in fluid accumulation, heart blockage, arrhythmias, or a heart attack.
Hypercalcemia: Lung cancer can increase blood calcium levels, known as hypercalcemia, resulting in nausea, vomiting, dehydration, and stomach pain. According to estimates, up to 30% of all cancer patients suffer from hypercalcemia.
Blood clots: Deep vein thrombosis, a condition in which a blood clot forms in a deep vein, is more common in people with lung cancer. If this blood clot makes its way to the lungs, it can obstruct blood flow and result in a fatal pulmonary embolism.
Neuropathy: Pancoast tumours (on the top of the lungs) can affect the nerves in the eyes, face, and shoulders. It results in arm and shoulder pain, as well as Horner’s syndrome, a condition that causes droopy eyelids and changes in pupil size. Cancer can also spread from the lungs to the spine, compressing the vertebrae and causing back pain, weakness, and difficulty walking. According to research, approximately 28% of lung cancer patients may have this condition.
While there is no foolproof way to prevent cancer, you can reduce your risk by making healthy choices like eating well, staying active, and not smoking.
It’s also critical to follow recommended screening guidelines, which can aid in the early detection of certain cancers.
“Lung cancer is a potentially fatal type of cancer, but early detection improves survival. People at a high risk of developing lung cancer should consider getting screened regularly to detect early cancer symptoms and allow for treatment before the disease spreads. Anyone concerned about their risk of lung cancer should consult a medical professional,” Hewlett concludes.