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Friday, 17 March, 2000, 17:12 GMT
Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the commonest cancer in the world. In the UK, it is also the most frequently occurring cancer, accounting for 1 in 7 new cases.

Cancer: the facts
Nine in ten of these can be squarely blamed on the pernicious effects of tobacco smoking - and unfortunately the majority of cases cannot be cured.

The risk of lung cancer increases with age. It is uncommon in people under 40.

Recently, there has been a decrease in the incidence in men, but lung cancer is still rising in women - this is directly related to changing smoking habits.

Professor Gordon McVie, who is Director General of the Cancer Research Campaign, is an expert in lung cancer, and says that despite the current poor cure rates, optimism is higher than ever among researchers.

He said: "I've have been working to research lung cancer treatment for the last 30 years, and there has never been a more optimistic time.

"We haven't made a big impact on cure rates yet, but I do believe that that is simply a question of time."

He said that women in Scotland and the north of England were now more likely to die of lung cancer than breast cancer.

Click here to listen to Professor McVie talk about lung cancer

The key symptoms of lung cancer is a persistent cough that gradually gets worse.

  • shortness of breath
  • drop in ability to exercise
  • persistent chest pain
  • persistent cough or coughing up blood
  • loss of appetite, weight loss and general fatigue

At present there is no effective screening test for lung cancer.

If you are worried that you have lung cancer, your doctor may order a chest X-ray, which allows doctors to look out for shadowy areas on the lungs.

Sometimes a more detailed series of x-rays, called a CT scan, is ordered.

In many cases, this will be followed by a bronchoscopy or mediastinoscopy, which means that a thin flexible telescope is put down the airways of your lungs, after which a biopsy of any suspicious area is performed.

Most lung cancer cases are caused by smoking cigarettes.

Even passive smoking can cause a problem, and the longer period over which the patient smokes, the higher the risks.

Breathing in other carcinogens in the workplace, for example asbestos, can also trigger cancer.

Some people seem to be genetically pre-disposed to developing lung cancer, and medical checks in smokers may in future look for these key genes to work out how likely lung cancer is.

Beating the odds: Leslie Ableson describes how he beat lung cancer

Treatment depends on the type of lung cancer and the state or extent of the disease.

There are two types of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). The names simply describe the type of cell found in the tumours.

In NSCLC, the tumour is often located in the outside part of the lung, away from the centre, and if it has not spread, it may be possible to remove it by surgery.

However, overall less than a fifth of all NSCLC patients are suitable for surgery.

Radiotherapy is the other major method of treatment, following usually by a course of chemotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to damage cancer cells and stop their growth.

Unfortunately, NSCLC is hard to cure, and in many cases, the treatment given will be to prolong life as far as possible - and relieve symptoms.

SCLC is different from NSCLC. In particular, it has a tendency to spread to distant parts of the body at a relatively early stage.

As a result, small-cell lung cancers are generally less likely to be cured by surgery.

Chemotherapy is the main type of treatment and sometimes radiotherapy is used as well.

To learn more about survival rates for lung cancer compared to other cancers, click here .
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See also:

02 Nov 99 | Health
Lung cancer grows among women
29 Nov 99 | Health
Report confirms UK cancer shame
07 Mar 99 | Health
10m lung cancer blitz
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