If you've got a cough, you might think it's a common cold or COVID-19 infection. But if it lasts longer than eight weeks, it's time to check your lungs.
In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, let's be aware. According to the American Lung Association, more than half of lung cancer patients die within a year of diagnosis. With such a deadly disease, early detection is key to survival.
"It is important to detect lung cancer early because the higher the cancer stage when detected, the lower the survival rate," said Ellen Volker, MD of Pulmonology at Saint Joseph Hospital.
Take a deep breath, and let's be on the lung lookout.
What are the risk factors for lung cancer?
It's safe to assume no one is safe from lung cancer, but there are defined risk factors.
- Cigarette smoking
- Not surprisingly, smoking cigarettes is the number one risk factor. The CDC reports that 80-90 percent of lung cancer deaths are smoking-related. Secondhand smoke inhalation also causes lung cancer.
- Radon exposure
- Radon is an odorless, clear gas that naturally occurs in some buildings. Long-term radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Even people who have never used tobacco can die from radon exposure, which results in lung cancer.
- Family history
- Never underestimate the connection of family and personal history to your current health. If lung cancer has been in your past, it can be in your present. Especially with smoking or radon exposure, family history can put you at risk of lung cancer.
- Environmental factors
- You may have increased exposure to substances such as diesel exhaust, asbestos, and arsenal based on your daily environment. People living in areas with high air pollution are also at risk of lung cancer.
What are the warning signs of lung cancer?
When it comes to lung cancer, any sign is worth checking out, no matter how small.
- Chronic cough
- If you've got a chronic cough, don't dismiss its significance. Many assume a recurring cough is a sign of getting older or COVID. But many lung cancer cases start with this symptom, which shouldn't be ignored.
- Long-term chest pain
- Another symptom that can be mistaken for COVID is chest pain. If that COVID test is negative, and the chest pain lasts more than a month, it's time to book an appointment.
- You might brush off a noisy wheeze as age-related, but raspy breathing is serious. It means something is blocking your airway, which is worth looking at.
- Shortness of breath
- Many people experience shortness of breath after physical activity. But if this symptom extends past moments of exertion, it could be a bigger problem.
- Coughing up blood
- It should not take a health article to learn that coughing up blood is not good. If you see red droplets in your handkerchief, go to a pulmonologist like Dr. Volker as soon as possible.
- Chronic mucus production
- Did you know that mucus is your body's defense against irritants or infections? It could be lung cancer! If you are experiencing long-term phlegm production, determine what your body is defensive about.
Why is early lung cancer detection key?
Deciding to get checked out for lung cancer is a life-or-death decision. According to the American Lung Association, if you catch lung cancer while it's still in the lungs, your five-year survival rate is 56 percent. But if cancer spreads, the five-year survival rate is only 5 percent.
Dr. Volker encouraged patients to get regular lung cancer check-ups, especially those with risk factors. "Lung cancer screening has been approved since 2015 for annual lung cancer surveillance in high-risk patients," she said. "It is imperative that those at risk speak with their doctor about a low-dose CT screening."
Our online quiz can determine eligibility for lung cancer screenings, with or without insurance, if you're unsure. Take our quiz.