Lung cancer can happen to anyone – not just smokers. But early screening and understanding risk factors can help lung cancer be diagnosed and treated sooner.
This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
Comedian Kathy Griffin shared in August 2021 that she had been diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer and underwent surgery that removed half of her left lung. Griffin shared that the news came as a shock to her – especially as she said she has never smoked.
Lung cancer can happen to anyone – not just smokers. Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer deaths, accounting for nearly 25% of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. Each year, more people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined.
Early screening and understanding risk factors can help lung cancer be diagnosed and treated sooner, said Dr. Jessica Wang Memoli, director of Bronchoscopy and Pulmonary Intervention at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
Griffin’s lung cancer was caught early, but because she wasn’t a smoker, she didn’t fit into the typical group of people who would be screened for this type of cancer, said Dr. Wang Memoli.
“Sometimes doctors can get a small view of something in the lung when a mammogram is done, for example. And that leads people to have a full scan of their lungs when something like this is detected. But it’s usually on some test when people have something that looks abnormal. And then they do an assessment,” said Dr. Wang Memoli. “When we see people with lung cancer who have never smoked, they are usually women. They tend to be in that 50-60 age range.”
Overall, a man’s lifetime chance of developing lung cancer is about 1 in 15; for a woman, the risk is about 1 in 17, according to the American Cancer Society. These numbers include both smokers and non-smokers. For people who smoke, the risk is much higher, while for non-smokers, the risk is lower, notes the American Cancer Society.
Symptoms of lung cancer include a cough that gets worse or doesn’t go away, chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing up blood and unexplained weight loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, lung cancer can often strike without any symptoms, said Dr. Wang Memoli.
“That’s part of the difficulty with lung cancer, and probably part of the reasons why lung cancer is still the leading cause of death from cancer over all other types of cancer, because when you have something growing in your lungs, your lungs do not feel pain. sensors, so you probably don’t know.”
By the time symptoms present, the cancer has usually progressed to stage two, stage three, or stage four.
There are a few factors that can increase your risk of getting lung cancer – the main one is smoking.
“What I always tell people is don’t inhale anything you shouldn’t – that’s anything other than the air that’s around you,” said Dr. Wang Memoli. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of different things right now that they probably shouldn’t be doing. And therefore anything you inhale has the potential to damage your lungs.”
Exposure to radon gas, asbestos or other carcinogens and a family history of lung cancer can also increase your chance of diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Griffin said he removed half of his lung, which is one way to treat lung cancer. Studies have shown that it can enable healing—especially with isolated localized disease, noted Dr. Wang Memoli. She added that you can live without a lung as long as you have good lung functionality before diagnosis.
Lung cancer treatment has evolved a lot in the last 10 to 15 years. Now, the surgery is minimally invasive and done robotically through a few small incisions. Recovery after these types of procedures can take time — between 6 months and a year for patients to feel normal again, said Dr. Wang Memoli.
“I think this is the most difficult thing… that will take time…” said Dr. Wang Memoli. “The minimally invasive aspect minimizes [side effects] to people, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s advanced technologies and expert staff work to ensure that patients receive the care and attention they need.
“As far as cancer treatment is concerned, especially nowadays, it is a coordinated and multidisciplinary care. And we have it,” said Dr. Wang Memoli. “Even though it’s an advanced stage, there are still many therapies available that weren’t available even a decade ago, with multiple providers from different specialties working together for the best possible outcomes.”
Read more about lung cancer screening on the MedStar Washington Hospital Center website.