Why is Early Detection Key in the Fight Against Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer doesn’t only affect smokers, and Black Americans have high rates of late detection and misdiagnoses.

lung cancer

Someone doing research on health care trends in the Black community should notice something pretty quickly. We tend to have high rates of late detection and misdiagnoses when it comes to major diseases that also tend to afflict us in greater numbers. This can be observed with most cancers, where African Americans have the highest death rate and lowest survival rate of any group, according to the National Library of Medicine.  

“You get tired of hearing over and over that, we as a people, are more affected because we don’t trust the system – but it’s true,” says Dr. Zewditu Asfaw, cardiothoracic surgeon with Ascension Medical Group. “That’s a big issue because early screening and detection are really the best ways to catch things like lung and throat cancers.”

Dr. Asfaw says lung cancer is particularly difficult to diagnose without screening because the symptoms often show up late and slowly. By the time you feel that something is wrong, the issue may have progressed further than you think. “When symptoms like severe coughing and chest pain show up, that’s usually the point when the cancer becomes inoperable because it may have spread or invaded something crucial,” she says. 

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Smoking is still a major contributor to lung cancer rates even though the number of smokers has dropped for all races. Though, older people may still struggle to shake their nicotine habits. People aged 55 to 80 are the primary group for which annual lung cancer screenings are recommended. “Smokers are obviously at the most risk, but things like exposure during childhood to secondhand smoke can lead to development of cancer later on,” Dr. Asfaw says. 

“Smoking sometimes complicates treatment because it also affects blood vessels throughout the body as well as the heart, making surgery more complicated. The best thing you can do to actively prevent and protect would be to not smoke – or at least not around your family. This includes vaping.”

Also, we don’t know much about the connection between smoking marijuana and the risk of lung cancer. “I wish we knew more because there are lots of different intersections there in terms of medical implications,” she says. 

Screenings are still important even if you aren’t a smoker. Lung cancer has its own bad habit of turning up in people who’ve never touched a cigarette, particularly in women. Dr. Asfaw says, “We see patients come in who don’t smoke or have an apparent history with lung cancer, but they’re developing it all the same. A lot of these new cases have been younger women, too. I had one lady come in to get her chest X-rayed after a fall, and we discovered tumors. It’s a scary thing.” 

In most cases, detection involves injecting problem areas with a special glucose dye and seeing if the tumor “lights up,” which almost always indicates cancer. “When we catch them early, we can follow the growth of masses and abnormalities until you’re ready to biopsy or operate. There’s an entire team of doctors, in most cases, who act as support during someone’s cancer journey.”

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627).

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