Last week I got an opportunity to participate in The Lung Association’s #TAKEABREATHER Pop-Up Park yoga event at Sherway Gardens mall in Toronto Canada. As you know, we celebrate wellness and good health and want to share as much information with you. Our contributors and I strive to live the best life and we hope you do too. Healthy body, healthy mind = anything is possible. One of the things many of us take for granted every day is the complex yet simple gift of breathing. I often say be thankful to have another day so breathe in. I have talked about ‘being zen’ a meditative practice that requires you to become aware of your breathing. We have busy lives I get it, but we mustn’t neglect our health. Slow down, meditate, take a yoga class (a great way to connect with your breathing), take a walk, go to the gym. Inhale and then exhale. Do what’s needed to maintain a healthy you!
Lung diseases affect millions of people around the world. None of us are impervious when it comes to the possibility of experiencing lung cancer and lung disease whether it be directly or someone we know. There are so many misconceptions when it comes to lung disease. I want to shed light on some of the things you may not know, the more we all know the better off we are. It’s also important for us to continue our research efforts to further understand the different types of lung diseases.
I had a great talk with Dr. Dawn Bowdish, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University, to clear up some myths and get more information about lung disease. Bowdish’s goal is to develop new “therapies that bolster the body’s own defense mechanisms” and extend lives.
TTIWIK: What are some myths that many people still believe when it comes to understanding lung cancer and lung diseases?
One common assumption is that lung disease and lung cancer are completely preventable if you don’t smoke when in fact many common lung diseases don’t have anything to do with smoking. For example, about 30,000 Canadians are living with pulmonary fibrosis and many of them have what we call “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis” meaning that there is no known cause or risk factors. Other lung diseases are associated with environmental risk factors (e.g. air pollution), asbestos, exposure to radon, or have a genetic link. Although smoking certainly increases the risk of lung cancer and some lung diseases, it isn’t the only risk factor. Even if a patient is addicted to smoking, it’s important to remember that we all make lifestyle choices that influence our disease risk (who amongst us doesn’t struggle to keep a healthy weight, get enough sleep or exercise?) but blame is not helpful or constructive. Patients with lung disease often feel that they can’t speak out for fear of blame and this lack of sympathy means that people are less likely to donate to charities that support lung health or advocate for patients with lung disease.
TTIWIK: A lot of people think that lung cancer is something you get when you are older or as a result of smoking or heavy exposure to second-hand smoke or other known carcinogens? Is this true? Or it is still too complex to pinpoint one source, each case is different?
Certainly, age and smoking are risk factors for lung cancer but the second greatest risk is radon exposure. Radon is an odourless gas that can build up in our homes and for this reason, experts recommend that everyone test their homes for radon, which can easily be removed (For more information see: http://www.on.lung.ca/radon/)). Exposure to high loads of carcinogens is also a risk factor, which is why some professions, like fire fighters, may be at higher risk of developing lung cancer. Even if a person is at a high risk, they may be protected by having genes that give them some resistance and conversely race, sex and genetics predispose other people. We don’t have all the answers yet but researchers are continuing to discover how genes and risk factors work together to increase lung cancer risk.
TTIWIK: What are some of the overlooked symptoms that can help with early detection and diagnosis?
Symptoms to talk to your doctor about include breathlessness, a cough that won’t go away, more colds than most people have or tightness in the chest. Any unexplained change in voice, hoarseness, or blood tinged sputum or a change in the nature of a pre-existing cough may also be worrisome symptoms.The Lung Association has a “Lung Health Check” http://www.on.lung.ca/lungcheck that you can do to determine if you have any symptoms you should seek advice about.
TTIWIK: What questions should patients ask their doctors?
It is important to make the best use of the limited time that patients get with their physicians and their specialists. Preparing questions ahead of time may be helpful as would be taking a list of all the current prescription and over the counter medications to the consultation. Specifically for airway diseases such as asthma and COPD, it may be helpful for patients to take charge of their own health and suggest to their doctors to get spirometry and sputum examination. It does not hurt to get second opinions if you are not quite happy with your consultation with specialists.
TTIWIK: What don’t we know about lung cancer that you wish more people knew about?
Lung cancer kills more Canadians than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined and yet it only gets a fraction of the research dollars. This is frustrating because if we invested more in lung research and discovering new treatments or repurposing drugs that are already on the market, we’d probably start to see a real impact in people’s lives. There is hope but we need patients and those close to them to advocate for this research and remove the stigma associated with lung cancer to increase research funding.
TTIWIK: What are some of the other lung related diseases that people don’t know about?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is one that most people have never heard of, yet, it affects 1.5 million Canadians and is the biggest reason for emergency room visits by older adults. COPD causes the lungs to lose their flexibility and makes breathing difficult and cannot be reversed. Patients with COPD will have “exacerbations” which may be caused by a simple cold, when their breathing is so impaired that they need to go to the emergency room and have extensive support. We desperately need new treatments for COPD. Asthma may not always be allergic and there is more and more evidence that severe asthma may behave like COPD. Recurrent bronchitis may be due to an underlying disease called bronchiectasis., Although conditions such as pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, and pulmonary vasculitis are rare diseases, they could be debilitating.
TTIWIK: How can we keep our lungs healthy?
Don’t smoke (or vape), get your home checked for radon, do what you can to minimize air pollution (e.g. take the bus, bike or walk rather than drive) and exercise – your lungs will love it!
TTIWIK: What role does one’s lifestyle play in their overall lung health?
Our lifestyle improves our lung health and lung health improves our lifestyle. If we treat our lungs well by exercising, not smoking and managing conditions like asthma, we’ll be able to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle, hopefully for decades to come. Breathing relieves stress and keeps us centered and calm in a hectic world. Take the time to breathe and invest your time and energy into making sure all those living with lung health issues can do the same!
If you would like to find out more about lung diseases or current research efforts please visit: http://www.lung.ca