Tobacco smoke is a complex mixture of gaseous and particulate substances, and many of these are potential carcinogens. More than 4000 individual components have been identified in cigarette smoke. Some of these are carcinogens (substances that contribute to the development of cancer), such as benzene and nitrosamines. The ways in which cigarette smoke affects the body are:
- Cells in the lung that are exposed to these carcinogens can be damaged beyond repair. Specifically, the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of the cell is altered or mutated.
- The DNA of a cell controls all its functions, including when and how much it grows and divides.
- If the DNA is mutated in such a way that the regulation of the cell’s growth and division is altered, the cell may grow and divide uncontrollably, forming cancer.
- It often takes a long time, usually years or even decades, for the DNA damage resulting in lung cancer, but it’s been proven that even 15 cigarettes can alter the DNA in a cell.
- The risk of developing lung cancer increases with how long you have smoked, how old you were when you started smoking, and the number of cigarettes you smoke each day.
- The risk is also higher if you smoke tobacco and have other risk factors.
- Pipes, cigars, herbal cigarettes, hookahs, chewing tobacco, low-tar cigarettes, and low-nicotine cigarettes also cause cancer and are not considered safe.
- Secondhand smoke is what smokers exhale and what rises from a burning cigarette, pipe, or cigar. It is also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS).
- Breathing in secondhand smoke is called involuntary or passive smoking. No amount of exposure to secondhand smoke is safe.
- It contains the same chemicals as the smoke that is actively inhaled. People exposed to secondhand smoke have a higher risk for lung cancer.
- Secondhand smoke is the main risk factor for lung cancer among nonsmokers.
Do smoking cessation help?
Yes, if you quit smoking, your body begins healing immediately. According to the National Cancer Institute, smokers who quit before age 40 reduce their chance of dying prematurely from a smoking-related disease by about 90 percent. Quitting makes a difference even when you are diagnosed with lung cancer. If you are diagnosed with early-stage cancer, your chance of complications is much higher when you are still smoking. If you have late-stage lung cancer, you may live longer if you quit smoking. The earlier you quit, the greater the health benefit.
Once you start smoking, you are already at a higher risk of getting cancer. This risk may come down if you stop smoking, but it is always higher compared to a nonsmoker.
What are the possible symptoms and treatment options of lung cancer?
Usually, lung cancer shows no symptoms at an early stage. The most significant symptoms are found in the advanced stages of lung cancer. Some of the common lung cancer symptoms are:
- Severe cough that worsens over time and fails to go away
- Blood in sputum
- Severe chest pain
- Hoarseness (change in the voice, which sounds breathy and rough)
- Difficulty in breathing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Constant feeling of tiredness and weakness
- Body and joint pain accompanied by headache
The treatment depends on the stage of the lung cancer, as well as other patient-related and disease-related characteristics. Some of the common treatment methods are:
- Surgery: Surgery is for patients who are at an early stage. During the surgery, a portion of the infected lung or the entire lung is removed based on the severity of the infection.
- Radiation therapy: Cancer cells are killed with the help of powerful beams from X-ray and protons. A combined treatment of radiation and chemotherapy is recommended for Stage III patients who are not candidates for surgery.
- Chemotherapy: The treatment includes the use of drugs to eradicate cancer cells. These drugs are induced either orally or through veins in your arms.
- Targeted drug therapy: Patients suffering from stage IV lung cancer due to a specific type of mutation in cancer cells (EGFR, ALK, ROS, MET, etc.) are recommended to undergo targeted drug therapy.
- Immunotherapy: A new way to treat lung cancer where drugs are given through the intravenous (IV) route. It makes way for the patient's immune system to fight against cancer cells by clearing the proteins covering the immune system.