Besides discouraging smoking – active as well as passive, greater alertness and awareness is required to diagnose the disease in time
Lung cancer is the leadng cause of cancer-related deaths across the world, characterized by low survival rates and aggressive malignancies. While the disease was considered uncommon in India till the last decade, its numbers have risen alarmingly in recent years, with a large number of non-smokers also falling prey to the deadly disease.
Dr Chanchal Goswami, chief coordinator, Oncology Services, Medica Superspeciality Hospital, Kolkata, says it is highly important to educate people about the disease, the need to minimize risk factors and ensure early seeking of medical attention in case of symptoms like persistent cough accompanied by weight loss and fever.
“The past few years have witnessed a spike in numbers of lung cancer patients in India. The incidence has risen at an alarming rate of up to 15 per cent over the past decade. While there is no clear evidence of the exact cause of this rise, we take into account high prevalence of smoking aided by factors such as increasing environmental pollution and increasing exposure to chemical substances as the plausible causes,” says Dr Goswami.
Another trend characteristic to India is the disease’s prevalence in relatively younger men and women as compared to western countries. While the average age of lung cancer patients in the west is the mid 60s, in India this is much lower. In fact, a lot of patients are being diagnosed in their early 50s.
“Unfortunately, late diagnosis remains a norm rather than exception in India where people often hesitate to visit doctors. The disease is also marked by low survival rates, unlike other cancers whose survival rates have increased in recent years due to better treatment modalities,” adds Dr Goswami.
Of equal pertinence is the steady increase in numbers of non-smokers falling prey to lung cancer, once considered an exclusive ailment of smoke addicts. A large share of non-smoking patients are women who might have had exposure to second hand smoke all their lives at home or even no exposure at all in some cases.
“This does not mean that smoking is any less harmful. While 90 per cent of the risk for lung cancer is attributable to exposure to smoke – both direct and passive – other factors do seem to play an increasing role too. These include exposure to carcinogens like arsenic, pesticides, asbestos and harmful particulate material floating in the smoky and deadly air of our highly polluted cities,” opines Dr Goswami.
Smoking doesn’t just harm the smoker himself. It harms the environment around him, causing many people to inhale the dangerous fumes emanating from his cigarette butt. At the same time, long-term smoking may also cause some kind of genetic mutation that can be inherited by the next generation, making the person highly susceptible to lung cancer. So, while you as a smoker may be lucky and not suffer from lung cancer, your child may inherit the mutated smokers’ gene from you and may go on to suffer from the deadly disease even while being a non-smoker himself/ herself.
Ban on public smoking, and pictorial warnings have been the right measures initiated in recent years in India. More steps are needed to nail home the point among youngsters that smoking is ‘Not Cool’. Unfortunately, even as mass campaigns are being initiated against cigarette smoking, the repackaging and revival of the hookah culture among urban Indians is a worrying trend. The mushrooming of hookah parlors and bars across our urban landscape neutralizes all successes made against the cigarette. There is also a note of concern for increasing number of young urban woman taking to smoking.
Apart from taking radical steps to reduce prevalence of smoking – cigarettes, cigars as well as hookahs, steps also need to be taken to improve diagnosis and early intervention.
Due to rampant prevalence of tuberculosis in India, cases of lung cancer often get mistaken for tuberculosis and even treated for the same in initial days. Most lung cancer cases are detected in late stages by the time it is too late for treatment and cure.
“With symptoms such as fever, cough, weight loss and anorexia common to both tuberculosis and lung cancer, it is equally important for both patients and medical practitioners to stay alert to other indicators such as age of patient, history of smoking, or hoarseness in the voice. These indicators can point to the possibility of lung cancer early and ensure timely treatment,” informs Dr Goswami.
It is incumbent upon us to take care of our health and do all that we can to keep diseases at bay. We not only need to be firm in our resolve to say NO to habits like smoking, but also be alert to avoid passive smoking and sedentary lifestyles that can give rise to lung cancer. Finally, regular checkups and swift response cannot be overemphasized.