09.07.2020 change 09.07.2020

Holy Smoke! Growing number of non-smokers getting lung cancer

Credit: Fotolia Credit: Fotolia

Increasing numbers of non-smokers are being diagnosed with lung cancer because of air pollution, says new research.

According to Professor Rodryg Ramlau from the Poznan University of Medical Sciences, those who have never smoked are more often diagnosed than smokers, including people below the ages of 40 and 30.

He said: “Recently, environmental pollution seems to have had a significant impact on the incidence of lung cancer. People who do sports, intensively exercise throughout the year, run marathons, fall ill.”

One is the husband of Aleksandra Wilk, the founder of a Facebook page for people with lung cancer. Aleksandra recalls that her husband did sports, had a healthy diet and had no contact with asbestos. He did not smoke or stay among smokers - and he was not exposed to secondhand smoke. But he still developed lung cancer when he was only 40 years old.

Ramlau, who is head of the Oncology Department and Clinic of the Poznan University of Medical Sciences, said: “Young people, 30-40 years old, are coming to my clinic more often. It is worrying that there are more and more young women among them.”

According to professor Paweł Krawczyk, head of the Laboratory of Immunology and Genetics of the Department of Pneumonology, Oncology and Allergology at the Medical University of Lublin, the main reason for the high numbers of deaths is the late detection of the disease, especially in young non-smokers, because no one expects them to have this disease. 

“Lung cancer usually develops in people who smoke and have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These patients have shortness of breath and cough and do not notice the cancer-induced change: a slightly different type of cough and fatigue, weakness, greater shortness of breath. So they ignore these symptoms and this causes a delayed diagnosis.”

Aleksandra Wilk says that her husband had no complaints. One day, when climbing the stairs to the fourth floor, he was short of breath and started coughing. His GP diagnosed bronchitis and prescribed an antibiotic. But he was still short of breath and breathing with increasing difficulty. By the time he was examined in the hospital, one lung was already compromised. The doctors gave him 3-6 months to live. Thanks to medicines, including immunotherapy and chemotherapy, he lived more than two years after diagnosis. But he died two years ago.

Professor Ramlau says that the symptoms of lung cancer are often ignored by family doctors who believe that for heavy smokers it is normal to have a cough, shortness of breath or impaired physical performance. As a result, this cancer is most often detected at an advanced stage. 

He said: “We rarely receive patients in the early stages of developing lung cancer, and in their case the cancer is detected accidentally, for example during periodic examinations or completing documents before a stay in a sanatorium.”

He added that the only test that can detect lung cancer at an early stage is low-dose computed tomography (without the need for contrast), saving: “All other examinations that seemed to be helpful in detecting early lung cancer, like x-ray or sputum analysis, turned out to be highly ineffective.”

In Poland, the screening programme for early detection of lung cancer is limited. 

Professor Krawczyk said: “Expenditure on this programme is small. It allows us to carry out only a few thousand tests a year, and the needs are much greater, because we should test all heavy cigarette smokers.”

The most common lung cancer is the non-small cell lung carcinoma, detected in over 80 percent patients with lung cancer. 

But it is detected own only 15 percent of patients early enough to be surgically removed.

Over 15 percent of patients with lung cancer develop the form called small cell carcinoma. But it is usually detected in an advanced stage, when patients can no longer be operated on. These patients undergo pharmacological and radiotherapy treatment. Fortunately, advanced therapies such as immunotherapy and targeted therapy are also increasingly used in Poland. (PAP)

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