Five things to know about lung cancer

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Dana-Farber experts offer life saving information and ways to reduce risk

More than an estimated 160,000 people in the United States will die from lung cancer this year, making it the country's leading cause of cancer death. According to the National Cancer Institute, it surpassed breast cancer as the number one killer in women back in 1987. It causes more deaths than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined, according to the American Lung Association. Bruce Johnson, MD, the director of the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, sorts out the facts about lung cancer and offers simple ways to reduce risk.

1. Lung cancer targets more than just smokers

The greatest risk factor for lung cancer is smoking, but non-smokers can also development lung cancer. "Roughly 10 to 15 percent of lung cancer cases occur in non-smokers, and many of these patients are women," said Johnson. He added that it is important for everyone to know the symptoms of lung cancer, just not smokers, because detecting the cancer early can lead to better treatment outcomes.

2. Know the warning signs

Overall, cancer death rates have been dropping in the U.S., but the number of cases of women with lung cancer has been on the rise. Both men and women should know the warning signs of lung cancer. They can be subtle but symptoms to be aware of include: 1. a cough that does not go away, 2. shortness of breath, 3. back and shoulder pain, and 4. coughing up blood. This could be a sign of something serious and should be discussed with a doctor.

3. CT screenings can save lives

Lung cancer can be difficult to detect and, until recently, there has not been a good screening test. But results from the National Lung Screening Trial suggest that screening high-risk individuals with low-dose CT scans can detect tumors at an earlier stage, resulting in improved lung cancer survival. Screening is currently recommended for people who are between the ages of 55 and 74 and who have smoked a pack a day for 30 years and quit less than 15 years ago.

4. New therapies show promise

Thanks to advances in the last decade, new targeted therapies offer more treatment options for patients. "The identification of genetic alterations – such as EGFR and ALK – make the tumors more likely to respond to certain targeted drugs that can be taken in pill form and have fewer side effects than standard chemotherapy," said Johnson. Dana-Farber physicians offer testing to all lung cancer patients for the presence of such mutations. And researchers continue to hunt for additional genetic targets within lung cancers.

5. It's never too late to quit smoking

"The most important thing a person can do to avoid lung cancer is to never start smoking," said Johnson. For those who do smoke and decide to quit now, within weeks to months they can begin to reduce the risks of heart attack and lung cancer. "People who stop and remain a non-smoker for at least 10 to 20 years can cut their risk of developing lung cancer by 50 to 75 percent," explained Johnson.

Quitting smoking can be difficult because the nicotine in tobacco is addictive. "It's very common to have people try several times to quit before they stop permanently," said Johnson, but he emphasized that "it's never too late to quit."

For those who are looking to quit smoking, Johnson offered the following tips: 1. Plan the quit day, 2. recruit friends and family for support, 3. avoid triggers (get rid of cigarettes and ashtrays), 4. exercise to reduce cravings, and 5. follow the Four D's – Deep breaths, Drink lots of water, Do something to avoid cravings, Delay reaching for a cigarette, the urge will pass.

One smoker's journey 

At Dana-Farber, patients receive lung cancer treatment through the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology. 

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