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What you should know about lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer among both men and women. It takes more lives than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.

While all of this is grim news, the good news is that physicians at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, and elsewhere are constantly striving to uncover better methods for early detection and treatment of lung cancer. At Rush, physicians believe it’s a battle that can be won.

Do only smokers get lung cancer?
Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer, but smokers are not the only people who get lung cancer. In fact, 10 to 15 percent of all lung cancer patients have never smoked — such as Christopher Reeve’s widow, Dana. Other risk factors include age, family history and repeated exposure to asbestos or radon. People who don’t smoke but who regularly breathe the smoke of others (secondhand smoke) also have a higher risk of lung cancer.

Unlike age and family history, smoking — whether cigarettes, cigars or pipes — is a risk factor that can be controlled. The more a person smokes, and the longer he or she has been smoking, the greater the risk. Quitting smoking at any age lowers the risk of lung cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms?

  • A persistent cough or a change in your current cough
  • Coughing up blood (see a physician immediately)
  • Chest pain (see a physician immediately)
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and/or loss of appetite
  • Bloody or rust colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that keep recurring or don’t clear
  • Fatigue (not related to anemia)

What is the survival rate?
Because symptoms of lung cancer often don’t show up until the cancer has already progressed significantly, the five-year survival rate is only 15 percent. The good news is that this number actually represents an improvement. Thirty years ago, the five-year survival rate was eight percent.

“Although the survival rate is still disappointingly low,” says Philip Bonomi, MD, director of oncology at Rush, “we have seen improvements through the use of combination therapy, which combines chemotherapy and radiation to treat some forms of lung cancer.”

What progress is being made?
Current clinical trials at Rush are investigating the molecular profile of non-small-cell lung cancer, as well as new medications to treat it.

Researchers at Rush are also hoping to pioneer new screening options that will help physicians find lung cancer earlier, when it is more easily treated. At this time there is no well-established screening that catches lung cancer early. Newer imaging technology, such as low-dose spiral computed tomography, can be used for screening high-risk patients; however, it is often not covered by insurance and physicians do not yet have clear guidelines about responding to the test’s results. If you are worried about your risk for lung cancer, talk to your physician to see whether this test may be an option.

While the medical community is researching high-tech options, there’s one old-fashioned option that’s still good medicine: prevention. Bonomi urges parents to educate their children early about the dangers of smoking: “We should be educating children as early as second grade, so they’re prepared when peer pressure hits later.”

For information on cancer care at Rush, visit the Cancer Programs home page.

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