Lung cancer has become a hot topic since Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) had two tumors removed from his left lung on May 20.
Siew's tumors were confirmed to be lung adenocarcinoma, the most common form of lung cancer. However, lung cancer is hard to detect because there are almost no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. When it is discovered, the tumor is usually already in Stage 3 or Stage 4, which may be too late to treat.
Su Wu-chou (蘇五洲), a professor at National Cheng Kung University's medical school, said that most lung adenocarcinoma sufferers in the country were female and non-smokers.
Although air pollution is a major trigger for lung adenocarcinoma, Su said Taiwanese women were more at risk from exposure to a kitchen full of smoke while stir frying.
Computed tomography, or CT scans, are recognized as the most efficient way for doctors to discover lung tumors. Even so, Su said that approximately 80 percent to 90 percent of lung cancer patients are diagnosed when it is already too late.
“Many people die of lung cancer because it is too late to help them. But, if we can find the tumor as early as possible, lung cancer is actually one of the easiest cancers to deal with,” Su said.
Once lung adenocarcinoma begins to grow, it can eventually result in heart failure, as cancerous cells spread to the brain, bones and liver. Patients may lose their balance, fall unconscious, experience numbness or pain in the bones, Su said.
China Medical University professor Hsia Der-chun (夏德椿) said that lung cancer can be treated, as long as the patient does not panic and accepts “complete therapy.”
Complete therapy, Hsia said, includes surgery, targeted therapy and chemotherapy.
“It sounds easy but many lung cancer patients give up half way through the process because they either feel too hopeless or the cancer spreads too fast,” Hsia said.
Siew was the latest in a long-line of personalities to be diagnosed with lung cancer. Many local celebrities have either fought or succumbed to the disease, including actor Sun Yueh (孫越), Cardinal Paul Shan (單國璽), Quanta Computer (廣達) chairman Barry Lam (林百里), former minister of justice Chen Ding-nan (陳定南), former Democratic Progressive Party legislator Lu Hsiu-yi (盧修一) and dancer Lo Man-fei (羅曼菲).
Sun was diagnosed last year, while Shan discovered his condition in 2006. Lam was diagnosed in 2005. They are still fighting the disease.
Chen was diagnosed in January 2006 and passed away in November of the same year. Lu was diagnosed in 1995 and died in 1998. Lo was diagnosed in 2001 and passed away in 2006.
“None of them were smokers except Sun. But even he quit smoking 23 years ago,” Hsia said.
Sun is now a full-time volunteer for the John Tung Foundation (董氏基金會) and keeps himself busy promoting a cigarette-free environment. He said he had smoked for 37 years and his lungs were already damaged.
“Doctors said my lungs are like those of a 94-year-old, even though I am only 79,” Sun said. “But, the treatment of my lung cancer has taught me the importance of regular checkups.”
Wu Ching-ping (吳清平), director of the Penghu branch of Tri-Service General Hospital, said lung cancer incidence was quite low.
“The chances of a person getting lung cancer are close to 0.001 percent,” Wu said.
Survival chances depend on how early the cancer is detected. The chances of a Stage 1 patient surviving more than five years are more than 50 percent, while for Stage 2 patients, it is 30 percent. For Stage 3 patients, it is 20 percent and for Stage 4 patients less than 5 percent.
Wu said those over the age of 40 should have a CT scan each year.
Drugs such as Iressa and Gifitinib are used in targeted therapy or chemotherapy, said Yang Mu-hua (楊慕華), a doctor at Taipei Veterans General Hospital's Department of Tumors Hematology Oncology Department.
“The biggest problem is Iressa is very expensive, with monthly drug bills running between NT$70,000 and NT$80,000. Many people end up giving up after they have spent all their money,” Yang said.
As for Gifitinib, Yang said that it worked on more than 50 percent of lung adenocarcinoma patients and could help them survive for more than a year.
“If you are a healthy person, try to stay away from kitchen smoke, air pollution, maintain a healthy lifestyle and eat balanced meals. If you get sick, make sure you follow the doctor’s order,” Yang said.
“It is not the end of the world [if you are diagnosed with cancer], but it can kill you if you lose faith,” Yang said. “That is the best advice I can give.”
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