Come November, Mariah Carey thaws out another holiday season with her signature track, “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and social media floods platforms with Black Friday and holiday content.
November is also Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer in men and women in the United States and worldwide. Lung cancer kills more people every year than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.
It is an invisible cancer that does not cause symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage where lung cancer is more difficult to treat.
More than 8 million Americans are considered at high risk for lung cancer. These are men and women aged 50 to 80 who have smoked the equivalent of 20 packs per year, current smokers or who have quit in the past 15 years.
There you have it, the elephant in the room: smoking is the most important risk factor for lung cancer. More than 80% of lung cancer diagnoses occur in current or former smokers. It is estimated that 30 million adults are current smokers.
The Midwest represents the region with the highest percentage of current smokers. Smoking accounts for more than $240 billion in health care costs, nearly $185 billion in lost productivity due to smoking-related illnesses and health problems, nearly $180 billion in lost productivity due to death smoking-related premature birth and $7 billion in lost productivity due to premature death from exposure to second-hand smoke.
Smoking is a habit that isolates people in public and burns through their wallets as quickly as they burn through a pack.
In the 1940s, lung cancer was the first health risk definitively linked to smoking by epidemiological studies. By 1957, evidence implicating smoking as a causative factor in lung cancer had been established, leading to the first official statement from the United States Public Health Service.
Years of successful smoking cessation campaigns, beginning in the 1970s, resulted in the labeling of lung cancer as a smoker’s disease and fostered the perception that one “deserves” lung cancer because one smoke.
Although smoking is the greatest threat, environmental exposures, such as second-hand smoke, radon, and pollutants; occupational exposures, such as chemicals, combustion products and diesel exhaust; and genetics also plays a role.
This stigma impacts lung cancer awareness, research funding and support for those affected. Feelings of shame, guilt, blame and fear eat away at the afflicted, encourage disease concealment and impact the quality of care.
As a thoracic surgeon, I deal with this daily. I meet patients at all stages of their disease and at various stages of acceptance, denial and despair. I bring patients good and bad news every day. Whatever my role, I aim to be a source of hope, comfort and, above all, an educator. I fight stigma by instilling hope, fostering empathy and increasing knowledge about lung cancer.
The most effective treatment for lung cancer is in its infancy. This is achieved through early detection; the best option is a low-dose CT scan. This quick and easy test takes about 10 minutes and involves no needles or dyeing. The scan involves lying on a table and going through a ring, so there’s no risk of feeling claustrophobic.
The radiation dose is equivalent to completing 50 flights across the country or six months of natural background radiation. Imaging can detect an anomaly the size of a grain of rice. After a scan, patients are contacted with the results and further testing will be required if an abnormality is detected.
When detected at an early stage, it is possible to reduce the risk of death. When caught before it spreads, the chance of being alive in five years or more increases to 60% and can reduce the risk of death by up to 20%. Most early-stage lung cancers can be cured with surgery, and this is considered the treatment of choice. The surgery can often be performed minimally invasive with small incisions and a camera.
Lung cancer is not a death sentence. The cause of illness does not deprive anyone of the opportunity or right to treatment. The only way to fight the stigma surrounding lung cancer is to give a voice to lung cancer victims, survivors and educators.
It is essential that in November, alongside holiday preparations, everyone can learn about this silent killer and ask their GP if they are eligible for lung cancer screening.
Early detection is the only chance for a cure. The duration of Mariah Carey’s iconic holiday song is four minutes, shorter than a low-dose screening scan. But it’s long enough to save a life.
Nicole Geissen is a cardiothoracic surgeon.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com
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