Lung Health: Understanding Your Risk for Cancer and COPD

Lung Health: Understanding Your Risk for Cancer and COPD

We usually don’t give much thought to the breaths we take, making it easy to take our lung health for granted. But, lung and respiratory problems don’t always show up with obvious symptoms. UnityPoint Health specialist, Hamad Azam, M.D., answers common concerns related to lung cancer, COPD and smoking.

Lung Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), lung cancer claims the most lives of any cancer in the United States. Symptoms of lung cancer can be difficult to identify in its early stages.

“Lung cancer can be asymptomatic in early stages, which is why lung cancer screening is important,” Dr. Azam says. “Generally, by the time a patient develops symptoms, lung cancer is in advanced stage. The best thing we can do is diagnose lung cancer as early as possible and provide surgical cure.”

Knowing your risk for lung cancer greatly increases your chances of catching it early – or preventing it in the first place. The NCI lists the following risk factors for lung cancer:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes (including secondhand smoke)
  • Family history
  • Environmental risks (such as radon)

Dr. Azam says providers use these risk factors when determining who to screen early for lung cancer.

“If we wait for symptoms to develop, it can almost be too late in the disease process.  Staging is very important for prognosis. We routinely screen for lung cancer in high-risk populations. Patients between ages 55-79 with more than 30-pack year history of smoking should get CT chest lung cancer screening. Also, we do a lot of counseling about quitting smoking,” Dr. Azam says.

While smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, Dr. Azam says possible for non-smokers to develop lung cancer as well. 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Cancer isn’t the only lung health risk. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly known as COPD, can greatly impact someone’s quality of life.

“COPD is a chronic lung disease, which is usually irreversible lung damage from chronic tobacco smoke exposure, symptoms include shortness of breath which usually will worsens as the stage advances, cough with sputum production,” Dr. Azam says.

The American Lung Association labels COPD as “preventable and treatable.” Dr. Azam says there are steps providers can help patients take to manage the disease.

“First, we look at what might be causing COPD, such as smoking cigarettes (more than 10-15-pack-per-year), passive smoking exposure and history of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. From there, we usually do lung function test to determine the stage of COPD. For treatment of COPD, we start with patient education. Patients should know the disease process and future expectations. Stopping smoking, or smoking cessation, is the most important step to prevent further decline in lung function.  Additionally, bronchodilators, inhaled steroids and long-acting bronchodilators can help symptoms control,” Dr. Azam says.

Talking to Your Provider about Lung Health

Lung function declines with age and is usually an extremely slow process. However, if you have a history of smoking and shortness of breath, it’s never too early to talk to your provider.

“Minor decline in lung function may not have any symptoms, but we can’t emphasize enough the importance of stopping smoking. We always want to help our patients to quit smoking, including discussing smoking cessation programs, like motivation, counseling and medications,” Dr. Azam says.

If you have questions about your overall lung health or feel you might qualify for a lung cancer screening, contact your UnityPoint Health primary care provider or pulmonologist.

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