Try to breathe easy

Lung cancer is a notable threat, but knowing more about it can mitigate your risks


Lung cancer takes almost 1.8 million lives worldwide, earning it the grim title of the world’s most common cancer. South Africa is firmly caught in its grasp, as lung cancer ranks as one of the top five cancers here. Men are particularly vulnerable, accounting for around two-thirds of the cases diagnosed in 2020. The disease is also more common in older adults, with most people diagnosed being 65 or older. However, it can occur in younger individuals as well.

Lung cancer starts when some of the cells in the lungs start to grow out of control. The two main forms of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

Cancer is a silent attacker, often revealing no symptoms in its early stages. Yet, understanding the potential signs can arm us with the knowledge we need to fight back.

The main symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Persistent or worsening cough
  • Persistent breathlessness
  • Coughing up bloody phlegm
  • Shoulder ache or pain when breathing or coughing
  • Repeated chest infections
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constant fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Conditions like cardiovascular disease, allergies, COVID-19 and bronchitis can have similar warning signs to lung cancer. It’s important to find out what’s going on so you can get the right treatment. Early detection is the greatest weapon in terms of getting treated effectively.

What to avoid

Smoking is a leading risk factor, and data shows that 33.4% of South African males and 8.3% of females above the age of 15 are smokers. Even exposure to second-hand smoke can increase your chances of lung cancer. If you’re a smoker, the thought of quitting might seem daunting, but there are resources available to help you. To get started on your smoke-free journey, it’s worth visiting CANSA’s website at

Other things to watch out for are radon gas exposure at home and breathing in hazardous chemicals at work – like asbestos and exhaust smoke. If you are a lung cancer survivor or have a family history of lung cancer, you might also have a higher risk for lung cancer.

Immunotherapy: a new hope

Upon diagnosis, your treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or the revolutionary immunotherapy. Immunotherapy empowers your immune system to recognise the cancer cells and attack them. Our immune system naturally releases T cells, defenders against infections and diseases such as cancer. However, cancer cells can use pathways like the programmed death receptor-1 (PD-1) to hide from these T cells, allowing cancer to spread. Immunotherapy medication can block this PD-1 pathway to prevent cancer cells from hiding.

Myths vs facts

Myths can deter us from taking preventive measures or seeking early diagnosis and treatment, exacerbating the problem. It’s time to cast away these misunderstandings and illuminate the facts about lung cancer.

Myth #1: Only smokers get lung cancer

Fact: While smoking significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer, it is not the only risk factor. People who have never smoked can also develop lung cancer. Second-hand smoke, exposure to radon gas, certain chemicals and pollutants, and a family history of lung cancer can also increase the risk.

Myth #2: Lung cancer is a death sentence

Fact: Although lung cancer is a serious illness and it’s the leading cause of cancer death, it’s not always fatal. If detected at an early stage, survival rates can significantly increase.

Myth #3: Only older people get lung cancer

Fact: While lung cancer risk does increase with age, young people can also develop lung cancer. Adenocarcinoma, a type of non-small cell lung cancer, can often occur in nonsmokers and women, and at a younger age.

Myth # 4: Air pollution doesn’t cause lung cancer

Fact: Chronic exposure to polluted air can increase the risk of lung cancer.

Myth #5: Quitting smoking won’t decrease your risk of lung cancer

Fact: People who quit smoking have a lower risk of lung cancer than if they had continued to smoke, but their risk is higher than the risk for people who never smoked. Quitting smoking at any age can lower the risk of lung cancer.

Text: Supplied  Photography: Shutterstock/Photog’s name

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