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Inside lung cancer: What causes the disease - and what you can do to prevent it Radon causes between 15,000 and 22,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States - 12 percent of all lung cancer deaths.'

Posted on Thu, Aug. 25, 2005

Inside lung cancer: What causes the disease - and what you can do to prevent it


Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT) - It's the leading cancer killer in both men and women in the United States. It causes more deaths than the next three most common cancers combined - colon, breast and prostate. In the United States, it likely will kill more than 163,000 people this year alone.

It's lung cancer - a savage disease that kills about six out of 10 people within one year of diagnosis. Between seven and eight die within two years. Legendary ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, a former smoker, recently lost his fight with lung cancer at age 67. Two days later, Dana Reeve, widow of "Superman" star Christopher Reeve, announced she was being treated for the same disease. She, however, has never lit up a cigarette.

Then came news that Barbara Bel Geddes, best known as Miss Ellie Ewing in the TV show "Dallas," died of lung cancer. Bel Geddes, a longtime smoker, was 82.

While most lung cancer cases occur in smokers, the disease does not discriminate, striking about 10 percent of men and 20 percent of women who have never smoked.


There are two major types of lung cancer: non-small-cell lung cancer and small-cell lung cancer. Non-small-cell lung cancer, the more common of the two, typically spreads to different parts of the body more slowly than small-cell lung cancer, which accounts for about 20 percent of all lung cancer. Though lung cancer takes many years to develop, changes in the lungs can begin almost as soon as a person is exposed to cancer-causing substances. Soon after exposure, a few abnormal cells may appear in the lining of the bronchi, which are the main breathing tubes. If a person continues to be exposed to the cancer-causing substance, more abnormal cells will appear and could become cancerous and form a tumor.


The No. 1 cause is smoking. Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 different chemicals, many of which are proven cancer-causing substances, or carcinogens. Smoking cigars or pipes also increases the risk of lung cancer. Other smoking-related diseases include heart disease, stroke, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

If you stop smoking, the risk of lung cancer decreases each year. After 10 years, the risk drops to a level that is 1/3 to 1/2 the risk for regular smokers.

Nonsmokers still are at risk if they are around smokers and are inhaling their smoke - this is commonly referred to as secondhand smoking, which causes approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

While 87 percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking, the second-leading cause in the United States is radon. Radon gas can come up through the soil under a home, school or building and enter through cracks in the foundation or insulation, as well as through pipes, drains, walls or other openings. Radon causes between 15,000 and 22,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States - 12 percent of all lung cancer deaths.

The only way to tell if you've been exposed to radon gas - which you cannot see or smell - is to measure radon levels. The American Lung Association, along with the EPA and the U.S. Surgeon General, recommends testing homes below the third floor. Short-term testing and long-term testing can be done. Also, there are inexpensive do-it-yourself radon test kits available through the mail, in hardware stores and other retail locations. Look for tests labeled "Meets EPA Requirements."


When a person begins to experience symptoms, cancer is often advanced. Symptoms include chronic cough, hoarseness, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, chest pain and fever without a known reason.

Early stages of lung cancer do not cause symptoms.

If you are diagnosed with cancer, the doctor will test to find out whether the cancer has spread, and, if so, to which parts of the body. Tests are done by a CT scan, an MRI, or a bone scan.


Doctors determine which treatment will be most effective for the patient, based on the type of lung cancer, the size, location and extent of the tumor (whether or not it has spread) and the patient's general health. Several treatments, including surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, are available and can be used alone or combined.


SOURCES: American Lung Association; www.cnn.com


2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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