Health Check: Managing lung disease before it becomes harder to breathe

WTAP Daybreak
Published: Apr. 25, 2022 at 10:45 PM EDT
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - We use our lungs every day to breathe, and developing any lung disease can hold you back from breathing easier.

Lung disease covers many problems within the lungs, from its structure and function to how air flows through the airways.

“And so it’s very important for patients to reach out to their health care provider if they have where it’s worrisome symptoms. So symptoms could include cough, sputum or phlegm production, shortness of breath, or chest tightness commonly. So if patients are experiencing these symptoms, they need to reach out and get help.”

Dr. Michael Cheshire, Associate Program Director for the residency program at WVU Medicine Camden Clark Medical Center, said there are occupational exposures such as coal miners in West Virginia that are important to note in terms of lung disease.

“In the Mid-Ohio Valley, when you consider chemical exposures, there are multiple chemicals and substances that have been associated with lung disease, cobalt, indium, beryllium, and asbestos,” Dr. Cheshire said. “And so it’s important for patients to know what they’ve been exposed to, and then work with their practitioner to look at the timing, look at the amount of exposure, the timing of the exposure, the development of symptoms, and then look at other potential exposures that they may not have considered.”

According to America’s Health Rankings, West Virginia has the highest percentage of smoking, with 22.6 percent, while the national average is 15.5 percent.

Dr. Cheshire said cigarette smoking is one of the significant risk factors that can lead to other lung diseases such as COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to Dr. Roshen Mathew, a pulmonologist at WVU Medicine Camden Clark Medical Center, COPD is one of the most common lung diseases in the Mid-Ohio Valley.

According to the American Lung Association, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, needing to clear the throat frequently, and having a chronic cough. According to America’s Health Rankings, West Virginia has the highest percentage of people with COPD at 13.6 percent, while the national average is 6.2 percent.

“So COPD can be treated, but it cannot be completely reversed,” Dr. Mathew said. “One of the most important things to do is to stop cigarette smoking, stop cigar smoking. But let’s say you already have COPD, then you’ll get treated with bronchodilators, which can help open up your lungs. If it’s really bad, you might need oxygen. One other thing that helps people with COPD is pulmonary rehab, which is essentially training your body to get used to what limited lung function you have. If the COPD is so bad and causes damage to your lung, then the only final step you have left is a lung transplant.”

While lung disease such as COPD can increase your risk for lung cancer, it cannot turn into lung cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, making up almost 25 percent of cancer deaths. Each year more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

Dr. Cheshire said receiving a lung cancer screening comes down to two-risk factors: smoking exposure and age. The United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends lung cancer screenings happen between 50 to 80 who have a 20-pack year history of smoking and still smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.

“So a pack here is daily exposure to one pack of cigarettes per day, for a year,” Dr. Cheshire said. “So if a patient smokes one pack of cigarettes per day for 20 years, that’s 20 pack years. So if somebody smoked two packs per day for ten years, that’s a 20-pack year history exposure.”

Some lung screenings include getting a chest x-ray, a CAT scan, or a PET scan to look for nodules or masses within the lungs. If found, pulmonologists such as Dr. Mathew can use a navigational CT platform called body vision to take a biopsy of the nodule to test it for cancerous cells.

When asked if patients are hesitant to get screened for lung cancer, Dr. Mathew says yes and no.

“I say yes because some people think I might find something, which I don’t like to know,” Dr. Mathew said. “But if you find it earlier, it can be treated. You can take it out with surgery, or you can do radiation, and you can have really good outcomes. But if you keep putting that away one day, it’s dawned on you that this has become advanced, and it’s gone into your brain, it’s now in your liver, and there’s nothing much to do.

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