Did you know that lung cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the UK? It’s also one of the most serious. According to the NHS, around 47,000 people in the UK receive a diagnosis of lung cancer every year. It’s more common the older you get, with 45% of those diagnosed aged 75 or older. Today’s article will look at the symptoms, causes, and treatments for lung cancer in detail.
For more information on cancer in general, read our useful guide here.
What is Lung Cancer?
As you may know, cancer occurs when cells in a certain part of the body start multiplying out of control. Sometimes, this process begins in the lungs. This is called primary lung cancer. In other cases, cancer might begin elsewhere in the body and spread to the lungs; this is known as secondary lung cancer.
Like most forms of cancer, early diagnosis is very important when it comes to treating lung cancer. Next, we’ll discuss some of the signs and symptoms to look out for.
Common Symptoms of Lung Cancer
In the early stages of lung cancer, noticeable symptoms are relatively rare. As the condition develops, you are more likely to start noticing signs and symptoms that something isn’t quite right. Below are some of the most common symptoms of lung cancer:
- A persistent cough that lasts 2-3 weeks or longer (or an existing cough that gets worse)
- Persistent chest infections
- Coughing up blood, either on its own or in phlegm
- Pain when breathing or coughing
- Feeling breathless
- Unexplained weight loss
- Feeling tired or lethargic a lot of the time
There are a few different kinds of lung cancer. Some of the rarer kinds can cause specific symptoms such as difficulty/discomfort when swallowing, swelling to the face or neck, or finger clubbing. It’s important to make an appointment with your doctor if you notice anything unusual about your body, especially a new cough or an existing cough that’s getting worse. Your symptoms might not necessarily point to cancer. Either way, a doctor will be able to find out what’s happening and give you the best possible treatment.
It might be helpful to write down your symptoms as soon as you notice them. Try and keep a note of how often they occur and anything that makes them better or worse.
Causes of Lung Cancer
As you probably know, smoking is by far the most common cause of lung cancer. According to the NHS, smoking is responsible for more than 70% of cases. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do to improve and maintain your health – there are plenty of other reasons to give up smoking too. It’s never too late to stop.
Even if you don’t smoke, being around others who smoke can also damage your health. Passive smoking (breathing in other people’s cigarette smoke) can put you at greater risk of developing several kinds of cancer, including lung cancer. This is especially dangerous for children.
There are a few other risk factors which can make you more likely to develop lung cancer. Some of these are occupational hazards which you might encounter in specific workplaces. These include asbestos, coal, silica, and nickel. Living in an area of high air pollution can also increase your risk.
Diagnosing Lung Cancer
Firstly, you should make an appointment with your GP if you notice anything unusual about your body, especially a persistent cough. During your appointment, the doctor will ask you some questions about your symptoms and your general health. They might also ask you to breathe into a spirometer. This is a device which measures your lung capacity. You might also have a blood test at this first appointment.
Then, if necessary, your doctor will refer you for further tests, which could include a chest x-ray, CT scan, and biopsy. If these tests determine that you have lung cancer, the next step is to assess the size of the cancer and whether it has spread outside of the lung. Naturally, this can be a distressing process, so make sure to ask your doctor to explain anything you don’t understand.
Treatment for Lung Cancer
The treatment you receive will depend on which type of lung cancer you have. There are two main types:
- Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)
- Non small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
In most cases, you will receive more than one kind of treatment. For example, someone with small cell lung cancer in a single area would usually have chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. If the cancer is in very early stages, they might have surgery to remove the cancerous part of the lung, before having chemotherapy and possibly radiotherapy too.
Chemotherapy is a very common treatment for most kinds of cancer. It is usually administered with a drip, which feeds chemotherapy drugs directly into the patient’s bloodstream via a cannula in their hand or arm.
Both small cell and non small cell lung cancer respond well to chemotherapy. It works by shrinking the cancer and preventing cancerous cells from growing any further.
Side effects include nausea, weight loss, hair loss, tiredness, and a weakened immune system.
Radiotherapy is also a common treatment for lung cancer. If chemotherapy is successful at shrinking the cancer or getting rid of it entirely, radiotherapy can help to stop the cancer from returning. People with lung cancer that has spread to other parts of their body might have radiotherapy by itself to control its spread, although it cannot cure the condition entirely.
Radiotherapy uses x-rays to destroy cancer cells. It can have side effects including tiredness, nausea, red/darker skin around the treatment area, chest pain, and a persistent cough.
In some cases, if you are fit enough, you might have chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. This might be because your cancer is in very early stages, or because it cannot be removed with surgery.
The side effects of chemoradiotherapy can be quite intense, which is why you’ll only have it if you are fit and healthy. Cancer Research UK has a guide to chemoradiotherapy side effects on their website.
Living with Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is a life-changing condition, so it’s only natural to feel afraid, confused, angry, or even numb. There is no right or wrong way to feel after your diagnosis. It’s important to talk to a person or people you trust. You don’t have to open up to family and friends straight away – or at all, if you don’t feel comfortable. There are several dedicated resources and support groups for people with lung cancer. See the NHS guide to living with lung cancer for more information.
Staying Safe with a Lifeline Alarm
A cancer diagnosis can be very worrying, both for you and for your loved ones. A Lifeline alarm can help you find some peace of mind while you deal with side effects like pain and breathlessness. We offer a range of alarm systems to suit all kind of lifestyles and needs. Every Lifeline alarm gives you access to 24/7 support from our expert Emergency Response team. If you need help for any reason, you can press your emergency button and know that help is on the way fast. The Response Team will ask you a few questions in order to assess the situation, before calling your chosen emergency contacts and/or the emergency services to come and assist you.
For more information on the Lifeline alarm service, give us a call on 0800 999 0400 or read our quick guide here.