As I sat in the room listening to my patient, she told me how she had ignored a cough that she has had since this past summer. Her cancer was found when she had a chest X-ray prior to her gall-bladder surgery. Fortunately for her, the cancer was caught at an early stage and she had surgery to remove it.It can be easy to ignore a cough since people often mistake it for a respiratory infection or even allergy. However, if you have a persistent cough that has not resolved after 2-3 weeks please notify your doctor to see if you may need more tests. Lung cancer can also cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing up blood, new-onset hoarseness, weakness, loss of appetite, or weight loss. Lung cancers can sometimes grow to a large size or spread elsewhere before one experiences any symptoms.If a scan shows a spot suspicious for lung cancer, the next step is to obtain a biopsy. The biopsy will also determine if it is a more aggressive lung cancer called small cell lung cancer or a less aggressive and more common lung cancer called non small cell lung cancer. Additional scans may be done to see if the cancer has spread anywhere and to determine the stage of lung cancer.Lung cancer can be curable by surgery if caught at an early stage. For more advanced lung cancer, treatment involves chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. I like to remind my patients that we now have chemotherapies that are very well tolerated and many people continue to work while getting treatments. Also, chemotherapy treatments are given as an outpatient and have shown to significantly improve one’s quality of life and survival.Lately we have had many exciting advances in treatment of lung cancer. We now have three FDA approved pills, Tarceva, Xalkori and Gilotrif which can treat certain types of lung cancer instead of intravenous chemotherapy. We also have very effective anti-nausea drugs and other supportive care treatments which greatly decrease many side effects from chemotherapy.
Unlike breast or colon cancer, we don’t have standardized screening tests for lung cancer. A routine chest X-ray can miss small cancer spots in the lung. Another test called Low-dose CT scan can screen for lung cancers in people at high risk, such as heavy smokers. However, this test is not universally covered by insurers. Also, the scan may find other abnormal spots in the lungs that are not cancer and can result in a lot of unnecessary testing.The old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is so true for lung cancers! Did you know that 80-90% of lung cancers can be prevented? That is because 80-90% of lung cancers occur in smokers. The good news about this is that we have personal control and prevent most lung cancers if we choose not to smoke! November is Lung cancer awareness month. Staggeringly, one in every six cancer deaths in the US is due to lung cancer. Besides cigarette smoking other risk factors for lung cancer include exposure to second hand smoking, exposure to radon gas, asbestos and history of radiation to chest. It is a time to reflect what each one of us can do to prevent lung cancer from being the leading cause of cancer death in the United States for both men and women.There are many available resources dedicated to help with smoking cessation. One such resource is the Georgia Tobacco Quit Line (1-877-270-STOP) which is a toll free telephone based program available throughout Georgia. The program offers personalized counseling for quitting tobacco and can provide free nicotine patches and gum to Georgia adults regardless of health insurance coverage. Also, please don’t forget to talk to your doctor to see if you may be helped by other available resources or medications that can help you quit smoking. Let us work together toward a tobacco-free Georgia!
Priya Rudolph, MD, PhD
Dr. Priya Rudolph, a graduate from Yale University is an experienced hematologist/oncologist with Georgia Cancer Specialists affiliated with Northside Hospital Cancer Institute (www.gacancer.comhttps://www.gacancer.com). She has offices in Athens (ph 706-369-4478) and at the Cowles Clinic in Greensboro (Ph 706-454-0159). Georgia Cancer Specialists is a top 10 privately owned practice and is a national leader in advanced cancer treatment and research. Its physicians and staff offer many clinical trials and state of the art personalized care to each individual patient.