Among all the types of cancer, lung cancer also known as bronchogenic carcinoma, causes the most number of deaths among men and the second largest among women (the first being breast cancer). Every year, it kills about a million people. This article provides information regarding its treatment and side effects.
Cancer is a condition in which, a certain category of cells in the body get divided in an uncontrolled and an inappropriate manner. Cell division, or mitosis, is a natural process that produces two daughter cells, from one mother cell. These new cells replace the cells that die out naturally. Under normal circumstances, cell division occurs only when the conditions for the growth of new cells are favorable, and the body sends a signal to that effect. Also, this process is started only when replication, which refers to the copying of genetic material from the mother cell to the daughter cell, is complete.
In people affected by cancer, the cells grow in an abnormal manner, thereby leading to the growth of an abnormal mass of tissue called a tumor. It is different from the mother cells and does not function normally. Furthermore, the daughter cells of the cancer cells are more abnormal than the parent cells. This results in the formation of progressively more abnormal cells which affect the normal working of the organ. Cancer cells can affect the surrounding cells, thereby producing abnormalities in them. They can spread to other locations through the blood and lymph systems.
Causes and Symptoms
Cancer of the lungs can arise due to abnormalities of epithelial cells (cells that line the cavities or surface of structures inside the body) within the lungs. The single most potent cause for this disease is smoking, both active and passive. Other causes are exposure to radon gas, asbestos, and certain viruses. The malignant growth can occur in the airway, leading to breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing, roughening of voice, and difficulty in swallowing. The cancer cells have a rich blood supply. When the surface of such cells becomes weak, they bleed in the airway leading to coughing of blood.
Other symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, and chest pain. Performing a chest radiography is the most common diagnostic tool. This helps in detecting the presence of a malignant growth. If this tool fails for a person reporting obvious symptoms, bronchoscopy, or a CT (Computed Tomography) scan can be employed. If the disease is discovered at an early stage, it can be treated with a greater success rate.
Lung cancer can be of two types: Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC) and Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC). NSCLC is more common and it spreads slowly to other parts of the body, whereas SCLC spreads aggressively. The treatment depends upon the type and stage of the disease, along with the health and fitness of the patient.
Surgery: Surgery involves the removal of the tumor. It can be performed only when the malignant growth is relatively localized, and the patient is fit enough to undergo surgery.
Radiation: The tumor can also be destroyed by focusing X-rays on it. This procedure is called radiation and it affects the genetic material or the DNA of the tumor cells, thereby halting their rapid division and growth. Radiation is used in patients who cannot undergo surgery due to medical complications.
Chemotherapy: In chemotherapy, anti-tumor drugs are administered either through an injection into a vein or by placing a catheter (a thin tube used for surgical procedure) inside a large vein. It is used for all the stages of the disorder, and can increase the effectiveness of radiation treatment by weakening the cancer cells.
Surgery is generally employed for NSCLC that is localized. Chemotherapy, with or without radiation, and radiation alone is used for treating SCLC. However, a combination of therapies is most effective and is the rule of thumb, when the cancer has spread to areas near the lung. Radiation is used for decreasing the tumor size before surgery and eliminating remnant abnormal cells after surgery. It can also be used to treat lung cancer that has spread to the brain. Residual tumor cells can also be eliminated by chemotherapy. Recent research suggests that a combination of chemotherapy and radiation is more effective than radiation alone. When the disease becomes incurable, medication, chemotherapy and radiation are used to treat the symptoms without eliminating the tumor.
Side Effects of Treatment
Chemotherapy can weaken the white blood cells, which are required to protect the body from infections. It can also lead to acute nausea and vomiting, in some cases. This results in poor quality of life plagued by continuous discomfort. In recent times, new techniques are being developed to reduce the severity of such side effects. Radiation can have more side effects. It can also affect the normal cells that it encounters en route the tumor. The esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach) is sensitive to radiation. It gets inflamed due to radiation and patients experience difficulty in swallowing. Although, the inflammation disappears in two or three weeks, it can result in weight loss.
Radiation pneumonitis is another side effect in which, inflammation inside lungs causes shortness of breath, coughing, and fever. This typically occurs nine months after radiotherapy and disappears in about four weeks, without causing any permanent damage. Other side effects include fatigue, temporary loss of appetite, hair loss around the chest area, and skin irritation. All these are of short duration and doctors use short doses of radiation to minimize them.
The single largest cause for lung cancer is smoking. So, to prevent it from occurring, one must give up smoking.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.