November is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, lung cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosis and is the leading cause of cancer mortality in Minnesota. It also kills more than twice as many men as prostate cancer and more than twice as many women as breast cancer in the state.
Dr. Abbie Begnaud with the University of Minnesota answers questions on the symptoms, risk factors and treatment for lung cancer.
Q: What is lung cancer?
Begnaud: Lung cancer is an overgrowth of mutated cells. These are normal types of cells found in the lung that start to grow out of control and form one or more tumors or masses.
Q: Who is at risk of developing lung cancer?
Begnaud: Anyone can get lung cancer. Long-term exposure to environmental agents like cigarette smoke, smog or radon can put people at higher risk. Examples of substances found at some workplaces that increase risk include asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust, and some forms of silica and chromium. For many of these substances, the risk of getting lung cancer is even higher for those who smoke cigarettes. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that you can’t smell, see or taste. It is common, especially here in Minnesota and can enter your home through the soil and remain trapped inside the home. The average radon level in Minnesota is more than three times higher than the average U.S. radon level. The only way to know if this is happening is to test your home with kits available commercially or through the Minnesota Department of Health. People who have an immediate family member who has lung cancer are also at a higher risk of developing lung cancer.
Q: What are the symptoms of lung cancer?
Begnaud: Initially, there are none. Lung cancer can develop and grow in the lungs for some time before symptoms occur. By the time most people with lung cancer have any symptoms, the disease is usually advanced. People with lung cancer might experience cough, chest discomfort, difficulty breathing or weight loss. Because there are no symptoms of early lung cancer, people who have been cigarette smokers for years might be eligible to get screened for lung cancer. Lung cancer screening is a low-dose CT (or “CAT”) scan to look at the lung tissue. The test takes just a few minutes and requires no fasting, no prep and no IV.
Q: What are the treatment options for lung cancer?
Begnaud: Broadly, treatment includes surgery to remove the cancer, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. The best chance for cure is with surgical removal, if possible. Recent advances in lung cancer treatment have revolutionized the field. Some lung cancers will have “targets” for treatment, mutations that contributed to the cancer and can be directly blocked to shrink or destroy the cancer. These newer targeted therapies are easier to take and more effective than traditional chemotherapy. In addition, immunotherapy – a new class of treatment with drugs approved since 2015 – allows the body’s immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells. We have promising treatments for lung cancer today more than we ever have.
Q: What are you doing to advance lung cancer research?
Begnaud: My work focuses on improving access to lung cancer screening, which is a relatively new preventive care service. We estimate that only 5 percent of people who are eligible for lung cancer screening have been screened. In addition, lung cancer is a disease that disproportionately affects some groups in Minnesota such as African-Americans and Native-Americans. I am studying how we can improve the disproportionate impact of lung cancer on these groups of people.
Dr. Abbie Begnaud is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School on the Twin Cities campus and a Masonic Cancer Center member. She studies lung cancer early diagnosis and disparities in lung cancer outcomes.