Abnormal growth of cells in lungs is termed as lung cancer. It is more commonly observed in chain smokers. Worst part of lung cancer is there are generally no serious early signs or symptoms. Lung cancer symptoms can only be observed once the disease gets to advanced stage. It is mainly categorized in to two types the small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non small cell lung cancer.
SCLC observed mainly in cigarette smokers grows rapidly and even spreads to other parts rapidly. The non small cell lung cancer is of three types depending on the cells identified in the tumor. Like other cancers increased exposure to carcinogens is the major cause for development of lung cancer. People with family history and take poor diet are also at high risk of this disease.
Lung cancer symptoms
Commonly observed symptoms of lung cancer include
- Shortness of breath: Blockage of lungs due to abnormally growing cells results in shortness of breath. It can also be due to fluid accumulation around the lungs.
- Wheezing: Serves as an indication for blockage or inflammation of lungs observed in lung cancer.
- Coughing: Continues for a very long time and does not go away even after using medications. Smokers with severe coughing also show change in the severity of the cough and is often called the new cough.
- Pain in the chest region: The pain is persistent and dull. Pain may also be felt in the back and shoulder region and becomes even more painful upon deep breathing.
- Frequent respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis are reported.
- Bloody mucous.
- Weight loss.
- Weakness and fatigue.
Symptoms that develop at later stages or those that are rarely observe include
- Difficulty to swallow: Spread of cancer to esophagus or pressing of cancer cells against the food pipe makes it hard to swallow.
- Hoarseness: damage to nerves controlling the voice box results in hoarseness in speech.
- Swelling in the face and neck regions: Spread of cancer to superior vena cava carrying blood from upper part of body to heart results in a superior vena cava syndrome. This results in swelling of face and arms. Nails may also bulge out and look abnormal.
- Horner syndrome: Lung tumors that cause damage to nerves carrying blood from upper chest to neck causes severe pain in shoulders. It results in a group of symptoms such as drooping eyelids, shrunken pupil and lower perspiration on one side of face. All these symptoms are together termed as Horner syndrome.
- Hypercalcemia: certain tumors secrete specific substances that remove calcium from bones. As a result large amount of calcium is found in blood and is termed as hypercalcemia. This may result in other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue and constipation.
- Weakness and seizures: Retention of large amounts of water in the body reduces blood sodium levels. This is in turn causes seizures, weakness and confusion.
- Extensive growth of cancer cells ruptures of fragile blood vessels resulting in bleeding.
Lung cancer treatment
Lung cancer can be treated if they are diagnosed at a very early stage. Patients have a good chance of surviving for about a year after successful removal of tumor by surgery. They may even continue to live for five or more years. If the cancer has spread to other parts it is hard to treat. In such cases, treatment only aims at relieving the pain and extending life.
For effective treatment it is essential to identify the type of lung cancer i.e. small cell lung cancer or the non small cell lung cancer and the staging of the cancer. Various tests such as blood tests, X-rays, radiological methods, CT scans, PET scans, bone scans and biopsy are performed to identify the size and extent of spread of the cancer. Multiple treatment options are available to treat lung cancer symptoms depending on the severity of the disease.
Surgery: Depending on the type of cancer and the extent of growth the physician decides whether to perform surgery or not to remove the tumor. Surgery is not performed in patients with existing heart or lung problems. During surgery, along with tumor surrounding lung tissues are removed. In few cases, entire lung or entire lobe of lung may also be removed. Following surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy is often used to get rid of any existing cancer cells. Chemotherapy is often performed after a month or two of performing surgery so as to allow surgical wounds to heal.
Chemotherapy: Small cell lung cancer that has spread to other parts is often treated with chemotherapy in combination with drugs and radiation therapy. Generally, platinum based compounds such as cisplatin or carboplatin are used. Drugs such as gemcitabine and virnorelbine are used in patients who cannot withstand platinum compounds. Use of chemotherapy after surgery in patients at the early stages of lung cancer prevents recurrence of cancer to a great extent.
Radiation treatment: Radiation therapy is used to control symptoms within the lungs. It is the only treatment option if the tumor has spread to brain. The treatment aims at reducing the size of the tumor so as to reduce pain and other affects of cancer cells. Radiation therapy may also be used before performing surgery so as to reduce the size of tumor.
Pain medications and other drugs : Drugs such as morphine are used to reduce pain. To patients who do not respond to chemotherapy drugs such as epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors and vascular endothelial growth factor receptor inhibitors are used to either kill or inhibit growth of cancer cells. Drugs such Bevacizumab are used to cut blood supply to tumor cells and ultimately cause death of cancer cells. Similarly, Erlotinib is used to block chemicals triggering cancer cell growth.
Photodynamic therapy : This is often used to treat very small sized tumors. In this method a chemical is injected in to the body which gets absorbed in to all cells of the body. However, it remains for a long time in cancer cells. When laser light is passed over the target area the chemical gets activated and then kills the cancer cells. This treatment is effective to regulate breathing problems and bleeding.
Herbal treatments : Use of antioxidant rich compounds such as green tea slows growth tumors. Herb Astragalus stimulates the immune system and helps it fight against cancer cells. Herb Rhizoma Zedoariae helps in lung cancer treatment by initiating self destructive process in cancer cells.
In addition to the above treatment options, patients are also recommended to practice simple breathing exercises to elevate symptoms such as shortness of breath and also to improve chest muscle. Patients undergoing radiation therapy should stay away from sun and use loose breathable clothes to reduce skin irritation.
Prevention and precaution
Lung cancer can be prevented to a great extent by following simple precautionary measures.
- Never smoke or use other tobacco products. Even if you have smoked for a long time, quitting smoking can reduce the risk of lung cancer.
- Increase intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. Consider taking organic foods if possible to avoid risk of pesticides and fertilizers.
- Avoid exposure to carcinogens at work.
It is very important to treat lung cancer symptoms at the earliest possible as it spreads to other parts such brain, liver and bones in about 40% of the cases. For effective treatment choose an experienced cancer specialist and follow the suggested treatment, diet etc.