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Tobacco use still most common cause of lung cancer

Yale Rosen

Lung cancer is considered the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women. How can it be prevented and who is more likely to get it?

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Martin Edelman talks about what can cause lung cancer and who can develop it. Edelman is head of the Solid Tumor Oncology Department at the University of Maryland’s Greenebaum Cancer Center.

Despite anti-smoking policies put in place in recent years, lung cancer is still prevalent in the country.

Typical symptoms of lung cancer can be things like a cough or pneumonia. But others can occur when the cancer has spread throughout the body. For example, lung cancer can spread to the brain and Edelman says patients will sometimes have stroke-like symptoms or go through a seizure.

“Biologically, the disease tends to metastasize or spread throughout the body fairly early in its natural history,” Edelman says.

It is possible for lung cancer to cause chest pains, according to Edelman, but the presence of pain depends on the location of the tumor.

“For example, if a lung cancer that arises in the distant part of the lung [it] can erode into the chest wall, that can be quite painful,” Edelman says.

Lung cancer can develop through other carcinogens such as asbestos, but the most common cause is tobacco and smoking.

“Unquestionably tobacco use is the single most common cause for lung cancer and clearly the one most amenable to change,” Edelman says.

However, Edelman says it’s important to recognize that even lack of exposure to tobacco or asbestos does not remove the risk of developing lung cancer.

“Ten to 15 percent of all lung cancers occur in people who never or hardly ever smoked,” Edelman says.  

Edelman says that not smoking is the best thing you can do for yourself to help prevent not only lung cancer but other diseases as well.

“Plus one has to realize that the major killers of people are not cancer it’s heart disease and lung disease and those are both heavily smoking-associated,” Edelman says.

According to Edelman, it is difficult to classify lung cancer as genetic.

“There have been some familial associations,” Edelman says. “It’s very difficult to sort out because the same families that tend to get lung cancer tend to be those people who smoke together.”