Take steps now to prevent lung cancer

Many people think of lung cancer as a man’s disease. In truth, lung cancer is an equal-opportunity killer, the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. Lung cancer causes 27 percent of all cancer deaths. That is more than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 207,339 people in the United States were diagnosed with lung cancer, including 110,322 men and 97,017 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Delaware, the number of women dying from lung cancer is 20 percent higher than the rest of the country, and the fourth-highest in the U.S., according to the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Raising awareness is vital. That’s a goal of the Lung Force Turquoise Takeover during Women’s Lung Health Week, observed May 11-17. It’s supported by the actress Valerie Harper, who was diagnosed with a rare form of small-cell lung cancer in 2009, and country singer Kellie Pickler, whose grandmother died of lung cancer.

A cure for this terrible disease remains elusive. But we do know that there are ways that we can reduce our risk of developing lung cancer.

Not smoking is at the top of the list. If you have never smoked, don’t start. And if you do smoke, please quit. You also can reduce your risk by avoiding second-hand smoke and staying inside in a climate-controlled environment when air pollution levels are high.

Harper’s cancer was discovered when she had X-rays for wrist surgery. Most cases are not diagnosed until someone develops symptoms, such as a cough that does not go away, chest pain, wheezing, weight loss or coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum.

By then, the prognosis is dire. For people diagnosed with Stage IV or advanced lung cancer, the five-year survival rate is less than 1 percent.

But for people who are diagnosed early, the outlook is much better. For patients with Stage 1A cancer — meaning a tumor of less than 3 centimeters or 1.5 inches that has not spread — the five-year survival rate is 49 percent.

That is why screening for high-risk individuals is so important. Medicare and private insurance will pay for CT scans that can detect lung cancer when it is in its earliest, most treatable stage. (Find out if you may be eligible for a lung cancer screening.)

So, who is at high risk? Essentially, anyone who has smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 30 years, including people who have quit smoking within the past 15 years.

As a society, we have come up with a number of ways to try to deter people from smoking, such as establishing smoke-free workplaces and businesses. We have learned that teens are less likely to smoke when higher excise taxes put the cost of cigarettes out of reach. Graphic images that depict diseased lungs also get the message across: SMOKING IS HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH.