A normally fit and seemingly healthy Kirsty Allen, a 29-year-old mother of two and part-time office administrator from Annfield Plain, County Durham, UK, began suffering headaches and other bothersome symptoms several weeks ago.
A routine blood test revealed abnormalities in her liver enzymes and bones, whereupon Allen was referred to the University Hospital of North Durham. Additional tests prompted a referral to a lung specialist. Allen’s condition quickly worsened and she was hospitalized. She went home over Easter weekend, but returned when she continued to have difficulty breathing.
On April 3 the young women died, less than a day after finally being diagnosed with a particularly rare lung cancer, before she could begin chemotherapy. The disease had metastasized throughout Allen’s body, into her spleen, liver, and lymph nodes.
Lung cancer is synonymous with smoking, yet Allen wasn’t a smoker or even a former smoker. One in eight people who get the disease are non-smokers who have abstained from the habit their entire lives.
The doctors had not seen a lung cancer so aggressive, but assessed her hormones – as cancer proliferation can be stimulated by hormones – may have contributed to the rapidness.
Allen is survived by her two children, Ebony, 6, and Adam, 2.
Because of the anatomical enormity of the lungs, tumors can grow for a long time before they are detected. When excessive coughing, shortness of breath, and unshakeable fatigue do occur, symptoms are mistakenly excused away as a chest cold, allergies, infections, or some other benign respiratory malady. Therefore, early-stage lung cancer (stages I and II) is difficult to detect. Most people, by the time it’s identified, are diagnosed at stages III and IV.
There are two primary classes of lung cancer, according to Lungcancer.org: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) which accounts for about 85 percent of cases, and small cell lung cancer (SCLC) which makes up the remaining 15 percent.
Non-small cell lung cancer arises in the periphery of the lungs and can exist for a long time before it is diagnosed. Up to 50 percent of NSCLC’s are considered adenocarcinomas. Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of lung cancer in the United States among both men and women.
One form of adenocarcinoma, bronchioloalveolar carcinoma (BAC), accounts for two to 14 percent of all lung cancer. This type is often seen in non-smokers and most commonly found in women.
BAC develops in cells of the alveoli (tiny air sacs) in the outer branch of the lungs, at the end of the smallest airways. The exchange of the gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide, takes place in this area. The average human has nearly 300 million alveoli.
BAC spreads primarily within the lungs, either along the tissue that separates the alveoli or through the airways; appearing in a single spot of the periphery or scattered throughout the lung. There are two main types: non-mucinous BAC, which is more common and found in smokers, and mucinous BAC is less common and found in non-smokers.
Squamous cell carcinoma (epidermoid carcinoma), makes up 30 percent of NSCLC, which forms in the lining of the bronchial tubes. Large cell carcinoma is the least common form, responsible for 10 percent of cases, growing rapidly along the outer regions of the lungs.
Non-small lung cancer has four stages, ranging from least to most severe. Stage I: Isolated to the lungs. State II: Has spread from the lungs to the lymph nodes. Stage III: the proliferation has spread from the lungs, lymph nodes in the middle of the chest. Stage III is broken into two categories – (A) the cancer has spread only to the nodes on the same side of the chest, and (B) has spread to the nodes on the opposite side of the chest and or above the collar. Stage IV: the cancer has metastasized to both lungs, the pleura, and other organs and can be considered terminal.
Small cell lung cancer is more commonly associated to smokers and germinates rapidly in the central areas of the lungs. If this class is diagnosed late, the tumors are considered inoperable – surgery is not the ideal recommended treatment. Instead, this pernicious ailment responds well to chemotherapy, radiation, and target treatment.
The stages of SCLC are limited and extensive. Limited means the disease is found on one side of the chest, one part of the lung and lymph node. Extensive has metastasized to the rest of the body, orienting from the lungs.
Overall cancer treatment and survivability depends on the commingling of several factors including the type, diagnosed stage, location, the general health of the patient, and organ function. Between 10 and 15 percent of lung cancers occur in non-smokers. Another 50 percent occur in former smokers. Causes of respiratory cancer in non-smokers can be linked to radon exposure, secondhand smoke, asbestos, aerosolized cooking oils, genetic predispositions, and Human papillomavirus (HPV).
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