Smoking And Lung Cancer

Lung cancer kills thousands of people in the UK each year; this is the second most common form of cancer in the UK and around 90 per cent of deaths from lung disease are linked to smoking. More than 41,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year in the UK. There are two primary forms of lung cancer: small-cell and non-small-cell lung cancer; non-small-cell lung cancer is much more common than small-cell lung cancer. 

In the early stages of lung cancer, there may be no obvious symptoms and this means that often, cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage when there is a risk that cancerous cells may have spread to other parts of the body. Early diagnosis can have a major bearing on the prognosis and this is why it is very important to seek medical advice if you do experience symptoms, such as:

  • coughing up blood
  • a persistent cough
  • wheezing
  • feeling breathless and struggling to breathe (especially when you are on the move)
  • tiredness and lethargy
  • losing weight
  • chest pain when you breathe in sharply or cough

Who gets lung cancer?

Lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed in people aged over 70 years old; however, it can affect younger people. Although it is possible to non-smokers to develop lung cancer, almost 90 per cent of cases are diagnosed in smokers and smoking has been identified as the primary risk factor. The more you smoke, the higher the risk of developing lung cancer; if you smoke 25 cigarettes each day, this increases your risk of lung cancer by 25 per cent. Smoking cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco can also increase your risk of cancer. 

How does smoking cause cancer?

Smoking increases the risk of lung cancer because it exposes the body to hundreds of toxic and dangerous substances, many of which have been identified as carcinogens (chemicals which increase the risk of cancer). These chemicals change the body’s DNA and affects our ability to fight off cancer-causing threats; once the DNA is damaged, smoking also affects the ability to repair it, as some of the chemicals, including benzene, interfere with the processes used to fix disturbed DNA. 

It can take many years for DNA to become damaged, but cancer is a very unpredictable illness and it can come on very quickly and aggressively; in some cases, it can kill within weeks or months of diagnosis. Every cigarette you smoke will contribute to damage to your DNA and over time, significant damage within the cells increases the risk of them becoming cancerous. According to Cancer Research UK, smoking 15 cigarettes brings about a change in the DNA, which may cause cells to become cancerous. Smoking can also cause the immune system to become weaker and less efficient and this may result in the body being less able to fight off cancer. 

The benefits of giving up smoking

Although it can take time to reverse the damage, the sooner you give up, the better; in just 10 years, you can halve your risk of developing lung cancer if you quit smoking. You will also notice that you can breathe easier and you become less susceptible to illnesses and infections once you give up smoking. Most people find that they become much less breathless when they walk up the stairs, run for a bus or play sport, once they’ve given up smoking. Studies suggest that lung function increases by 5 per cent within just a couple of months of giving up. 

Treatment for lung cancer

There are various options available for patients with lung cancer and the stage and type of the cancer will often affect the treatment pathway. Treatments used for lung cancer include radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery. In advanced cases, where cancer has spread to other parts of the body, a combination of treatments may be required. In cases where the tumour is confined to one of the lungs and there is no evidence of metastasis (spread), surgery may be recommended. 

If you are diagnosed with lung cancer, you will be referred for specialist care and you will be treated by a multi-disciplinary team made up of doctors, nurses and therapists who have expertise in oncology. All your treatment options will be explained to you and you will be made aware of the potential side-effects and risks before you agree to go ahead with any type of treatment. It is also important to be aware that practical and emotional support will be provided in addition to medical care; you can also contact Cancer Research UK, the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, Macmillan Cancer and the British Lung Foundation for advice and guidance. 

The prognosis for lung cancer

Unfortunately, as there are often no obvious symptoms in the early stages, many cases of lung cancer are diagnosed when cancer has advanced and spread; this means that the prognosis is often not as positive as for some other types of cancer. Currently, around 1 in 3 people live for at least 12 months after diagnosis, but fewer than 1 in 10 survive five years. The stage of diagnosis is key and early diagnosis can dramatically improve the chances of survival.

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