Smokers, non-smokers: Talk to your doctor about your risks of lung cancer, IU Simon Cancer Center lung expert advises

INDIANAPOLIS -- (Nov. 7, 2007) – Thanksgiving is a time for counting our blessings but for too many families, the spirit of the season will be diminished by the loss of a loved one to lung cancer. 

November, designated Lung Cancer Awareness Month, is set aside to educate Americans about the deadliest -- and most preventable -- form of cancer.

The statistics are startling:  87 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer will die within two years of their diagnosis since the disease typically is discovered after it has progressed, according to Nasser Hanna, M.D., an oncologist and a researcher with the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center. 

In the United States, 213,380 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. And 160,390 will die from the disease in 2007. In Indiana, nearly 4,000 Hoosiers will die from lung cancer in 2007. Indiana is disproportionately affected; Hoosiers have the second-highest smoking rate in the nation.

Overall, Dr. Hanna said lung cancer will kill more people than colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer -- the second-, third-, and fourth-leading cancer killers -- combined.

The majority of people – 90 percent – develop lung cancer due to smoking.

“Smoking doesn’t rob you of just a few years of life,” Dr. Hanna said.  “You lose, on average 15 to 25 years of life.  You lose decades of life.”

Stopping smoking or never smoking are the best defenses against developing the disease. But since 4,000 teens light up their first cigarette every day, Hanna stresses the importance of tobacco control, primarily through youth education. He and others are actively involved in having open and frank discussions with youth in Indiana schools as well as offering information on how to quit smoking and how to overcome peer pressure.

But non-smokers are at risk, too. They can develop lung cancer due to second-hand smoke, either from tobacco products or radon, asbestos, welding fumes, coal tar fumes, or diesel exhaust.

What are the signs and symptoms of lung cancer? 

Unfortunately, the warning signs don't usually appear during the early stages of the disease. “A person’s first sign might be a symptom of advanced disease,” Hanna said.

According to Hanna, the following are symptoms of lung cancer:

  • A persistent cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath  
  • Hoarse voice

Symptoms of advanced disease include:

  • A new area of pain
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Diminished appetite

How is lung cancer discovered? 

Unfortunately, current screenings – a chest X-ray, for example – do not find lung cancer early enough to improve a person’s chance for a cure. However, several studies, including a large study called the National Lung Screening Trial is underway. The study is looking at a new X-ray method called spiral CT scanning, which has shown promise in finding early lung cancer in smokers and former smokers.

Still, until an effective screening becomes the standard that is widely accepted, smokers and former smokers are especially encouraged to talk with their doctors about their risks and to discuss current screening options.