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Sunday 01 October 2006

Acting against lung cancer

By: The Star Online

ITíS a little-known fact that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths, globally. It claims more lives than colon, prostate, and breast cancer combined.

In Malaysia, lung cancer is the most common cancer found in males aged 50 and above, and 95% of lung cancer patients die within five years of diagnosis.

The 2003 National Cancer Registry of Malaysia report states that the most common cancer in males is lung cancer (13.8% of all male cancers) and also accounts for 3.8% of all female cancers. This brings a total of 1,758 cases of lung cancer reported in 2003.

Although nearly 90% of lung cancer is smoking-related, smoking is not the sole cause. Exposure to other carcinogens, such as asbestos and radon gas, also increases an individualís risk, especially in countries where environmental pollutants are high.

Risk factors include atmospheric pollution and industrial toxins, such as coal tar, heavy metals and radioactive materials. And there is strong evidence that passive smoking contributes to lung cancer in non-smokers.

The unfortunate thing is that lung cancer isnít usually discovered until it has reached an advanced stage, and by that time, the outlook for recovery is very poor. Although survival rates for lung cancer have improved over the years with better treatment options, they remain much lower than those of many other types of cancers.

Nearly 90% of lung cancer cases are smoking-related.

How do I know...

Late diagnosis unfortunately explains the short life expectancy for many lung cancer sufferers. Often patients mistake lung cancer symptoms for common ailments as they include persistent coughing, chest pain, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness, repeated pneumonia or bronchitis, weight loss and fatigue.

Currently, there is no ďreliableĒ screening test to detect lung cancer before symptoms develop (i.e. at an early, more treatable stage) but researchers are working to develop such a test.

Common tests used to diagnose lung cancer Ė and the extent to which it might have spread Ė include imaging tests such as x-rays and CT (three-dimensional image) scans, and examination under the microscope of cells in the phlegm. Bronchoscopy (passing a tube into the airways to examine the tissues) may also be carried out.

Newer, more sophisticated imaging scans like PET (medical imaging of tumours) and MRI (safer alternative as it uses magnetic pulses) are very sensitive and can reveal cancerous growths not seen by conventional chest x-rays. But the only definitive way to diagnose lung cancer is to examine a tissue sample under a microscope.

The more common form of lung cancer is known as non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which makes up about 75% of lung cancer cases. The other, known as small cell lung cancer, occurs almost exclusively in smokers.

After a patient is diagnosed with lung cancer, the physician or treatment team will choose the most appropriate treatment option. The type of treatment depends not only on the type and advanced stage of lung cancer, but also the general health of the patient.

Treatment strategies

Treatment depends on the size, type and stage of the tumour. Surgery, radiotherapy (use of radiation to kill cancer cells) and chemotherapy (use of cytotoxic drugs to kill cancer cells) may all be used in treating lung cancer. If the cancer has not spread, surgery to remove the tumour is the most common form of treatment for non-small cell lung cancer.

If the cancer has spread and surgery is not possible, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are used (alone or in combination) to control symptoms by reducing the size of the tumour.

Advanced stages of NSCLC are mainly treated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy based on the size and location of the tumour and the sensitivity of the normal tissue surrounding the tumour.

Chemotherapy is associated with some unpleasant side-effects, as these medications can be toxic to a variety of organ systems and can also kill healthy cells. For example, hair loss and nausea are common and well-known consequences of chemotherapy.

New treatments

Advanced medical science and technology have opened the door to new treatment and therapy options for lung cancer that can improve the quality of life for patients. With longer life expectancy, and the overall quality of life improving, it is essential that lung cancer patients are given the best possible option that will enable them to enjoy their quality of life, retain their dignity and self esteem.

New targeted treatments are designed to block or inhibit cellular function in lung cancer cells. Unlike traditional treatments, the new treatment is taken orally and there are fewer adverse side-effects. With regular monitoring by the physician, the treatment allows lung cancer patients to return to a normal life by giving them back their independence, thereby contributing to the patientís sense of overall well-being and peace of mind.

Whatever the treatment decision, both the patient and their treatment team should consult with each other to determine the best option for the patientís individual needs.

A little change goes a long way...

With the coordinated involvement of government and community health organisations, healthcare professionals and individuals, the risk of lung cancer can be decreased with certain lifestyle changes. While smoking cessation is acknowledged to be a strong factor, The World Cancer Report 2003 states two other key areas to stem the increase of cancer rates: a healthy lifestyle and diet; and early detection through screening, to allow for prevention and successful outcomes.

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