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How Can You Reduce Your Risk of Lung Cancer?

Prioritizing Lung Health During Lung Cancer Awareness Month

Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer and the nation's leading cause of cancer-related death. Often the disease does not show symptoms until it has progressed to advanced stages, when it is difficult to treat and chances of survival decrease. The earlier lung cancer is detected, the better the odds are of successful treatment.

Smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer, yet not everyone who smokes gets cancer nor does everyone who gets lung cancer smoke. Avoiding smoking or trying to quit smoking has always been considered one of the best ways to decrease future lung cancer risk. You may have an increased risk for lung cancer if you have been exposed to radon, asbestos or other cancer-causing agents or if you have a personal or family history of the disease.

The most common symptoms of lung cancer are shortness of breath, coughing up blood, a cough that won't go away and chest pain.

Early detection leads to positive outcomes

For those with an increased risk for lung cancer, such as current or former smokers, an annual lung cancer screening is recommended. Those who qualify have access to many screening locations across BJC, as well as some of the most advanced cancer care available.

Don Sabol, a retired Navy petty officer, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 40 years. After receiving a flyer in the mail from Siteman Cancer Center explaining the risk factors for those with a smoking history, he decided to schedule a lung screening. He was shocked to discover that he had early-stage lung cancer. “I was devastated,” Sabol said. “It was big in our lives,” said his wife of nearly 30 years, Sarah. “The doctors were always optimistic that it was an early catch and that everything was going to be OK.”

Seven months after the initial scan that found the cancerous nodules on his lungs, Sabol underwent surgery at Siteman Cancer Center to have them removed. Today, he is living cancer-free as a husband, father and grandfather. “If you fit the requirements for a screening, go do it,” Sabol says. “It could save your life.” Adds Sarah, “There’s no substitute for catching cancer early. Do it for the people who love you.”

Several years ago, David Patton, a long-time smoker who had served in the Air Force in Southeast Asia and had two brushes with other forms of cancer, all risk factors for lung cancer, had some discomfort in his chest. His physician referred him to the Missouri Baptist Lung Cancer Screening Program. A first scan detected a 3-millimeter node, too small to be operated on. In 2018, the node increased to 9-millimeters wide, and a panel of doctors decided it was time for surgery.

In late 2018, Missouri Baptist surgeon James Scharff, MD, successfully removed the nodule from Patton’s lung and he was able to go home about a week later. Patton is currently doing well, is very active and is busy living his life. “I have three children and four grandchildren whom I love spending time with,” Patton says. “My daughter calls it grandpa duty, but I call it joy. I never wanted to hear that I had those spots in my lungs, but I feel so much better now.”

Ron Komlos of Pevely, Missouri, was having a routine heart check when a nodule was spotted on his left lung. While additional testing could not determine malignancy, the nodule was growing. Because Komlos was young and healthy enough, the cardiothoracic team at Christian Hospital decided to proceed with robotic-assisted surgery.

Nabil Munfakh, MD, a Washington University cardiothoracic surgeon and medical director of cardiothoracic surgery at Christian Hospital, and Varun Puri, MD, another Washington University cardiothoracic surgeon at Christian Hospital, removed the nodule, and fortunately, it was not cancer.

Within two weeks, Komlos returned to work. Now, he’s back to playing golf, traveling and enjoying time with his wife and son without the lingering worry of lung cancer. “I don’t have to think about it anymore. I made a complete recovery, and just knowing that it’s gone and it wasn’t cancer, was tremendous,” he says.

Can lung cancer be prevented?

According to the American Cancer Society, not all lung cancers can be prevented. But there are things you can do that might lower your risk, such as changing the risk factors that you can control.

  • Don’t smoke or vape. Cigarette smoking causes about 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths in the United States. The most important thing you can do to prevent lung cancer is to not start smoking, or to quit if you smoke. While the long-term effects of vaping are still being studied, vaping may increase the risk of lung cancer due to the presence of nicotine and toxic chemicals.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke, smoke from other people’s cigarettes, cigars or pipes.
  • Avoid radon exposure and get your home tested for radon. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that all homes be tested for radon.
  • Avoid exposure to known cancer-causing agents and be careful at work. Health and safety guidelines in the workplace can help workers avoid carcinogens — things that can cause cancer.
  • Eat a healthy diet. A healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables may also help reduce your risk of lung cancer.
  • Get screened if you are eligible (see guidelines below). A low-radiation-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan of the chest to screen for lung cancer is like a mammography screening for breast cancer. Both can detect cancer in its early stages and save lives. In a reported study, LDCT lung cancer screening has been shown to reduce lung cancer deaths by 20% to 33% in high-risk populations.

If you stop smoking before cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue gradually starts to repair itself. No matter what your age or how long you’ve smoked, quitting may lower your risk of lung cancer and help you live longer.

Do you want to quit smoking?

Those who want to quit smoking, have recently quit or need help staying smoke-free can find free tools and tips. Go to smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

Why early detection is key

People often put off screenings — even for lung cancer — because they feel well and have no symptoms. However, finding cancer early means it can be treated sooner, when it is small and before it has spread.

Because lung cancer typically has no symptoms until the disease has spread, studies have shown screening patients at high risk can detect lung cancer early, when it is most treatable. For those with an increased risk for lung cancer, such as current or former smokers, an annual lung cancer screening is recommended. This provides a good baseline to see if new lung nodules have appeared or if existing lung nodules have grown. The screening can even detect other issues such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Lung cancer screening is a preventive annual screening, like a mammogram or colonoscopy. The recommended screening test for lung cancer is low-dose computed tomography (also called a low-dose CT scan, or LDCT). During an LDCT scan, you lie on a table and an X-ray machine uses a low dose of radiation to make detailed images of your lungs. The scan only takes a few minutes and is not painful.

Should you be screened?

People with a history of cigarette smoking have a high risk of lung cancer. In fact, tobacco use accounts for almost 90% of all lung cancers. The more cigarettes you smoke per day and the earlier you started smoking, the greater your risk of lung cancer.

Not everyone should be screened for lung cancer. Government guidelines, updated in February 2022, recommend a lung cancer screening if you meet the following criteria:

  1. You are between 50 and 77 years old.

  2. You have a smoking history of at least “20 pack-years”:

Examples:

3. You are a current smoker or have quit within the last 15 years.

Where to get screened

BJC HealthCare offers multiple lung cancer screening locations throughout the St. Louis area, including eastern Missouri and southern Illinois.

Being screened is important for your health. Significant strides have been made in lung cancer treatment, and early detection plays a vital role in a positive outcome. As with any form of cancer, early detection is the key to survival. Lung cancer treatments may include surgery, radiation treatments, chemotherapy or one of several interventional radiology procedures. Discuss lung cancer risks, symptoms and treatment options with your doctor.

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