Could your last breath be stolen by Lung Cancer?

Published Feb 6, 2024


Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away, said Maya Angelou.

It is easy to read this and think of awe-inspiring breathtaking moments, but what about that moment that will take your breath away, forever? Could your last breath be stolen by lung cancer, South Africa’s greatest cancer killer?

Did you know that cancer affects one in four South Africans, through the diagnosis of family, friends, colleagues or self?

Angie Oeh and Mark Pilgrim are two South African celebrities who don’t seem to have a lot in common, when in fact, they share their final breath being taken by cancer’s greatest killer, lung cancer. We live in a world where celebrities are considered ‘untouchable’. We often don’t pause to think about how they are regular people, proving that lung cancer can happen to anybody, no matter your societal status.

According to the World Health Organisation, 8950 lung cancer cases were reported in South Africa in 2020, of these reported cases, 69% occurred in males, and 31% occurred in females, making it the second most common cancer in men and fourth most common cancer in women in South Africa.

Lung cancer has one of the lowest survival outcomes of any cancer because more than two-thirds of patients receive a diagnosis too late or lack access to innovative therapies for curative treatment, proving a need to raise awareness to encourage early screening measures in patients.

The impact of this disease goes far beyond the statistics, leaving many families grieving for their loved ones often while they have to carry the financial burden the disease brings with it.

Already feeling the pinch? Consider the colossal cost associated with cancer

The second annual Money Stress Tracker (July 2023), which polled subscribers to debt counselling company DebtBusters' website and platform found that 3 out of 4 South Africans already feel the pinch when it comes to money stress. It is no secret that any medical expenses incurred by any illness take a huge financial toll - now, consider the stress and cost of cancer on top of your current financial struggles.

Unfortunately, the financial effects of cancer, including lung cancer, are a factor many do not consider.

According to the Lung Ambition Alliance’s Lung Cancer Screening: the Cost of Inaction report, lung cancer has the highest economic toll of all cancers on patients as most people who are diagnosed with lung cancer do not return to work at all which results in a ‘significant cost to early retirement to individuals, their families as well as the economy.’

Efforts must be put into prevention and early detection by going for lung screenings. The benefits of lung screenings go far beyond lung cancer detection and can detect other Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) at an early stage. Lung cancer prevention does not only include screening, it can also include things such as increasing your exercise regimen, quitting smoking, bettering your diet and becoming more informed.

Smoke and mirrors - lung cancer goes beyond smoking

Smoking is still a very common pastime for many individuals around the world. In South Africa, 33.4% of males and 8.3% of females above the age of 15 are consumers of tobacco.

Although it is worth noting that the most important risk factor for lung cancer remains tobacco smoking, it is not the only cause of lung cancer. We are seeing more and more people living healthy lifestyles with no history of smoking also being diagnosed with the disease.

Other risk factors that can potentially contribute to the deterioration of your health and lead to lung cancer include a poor diet, family history, air pollution, HIV, and ionising radiation.

What about e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, but many of them contain nicotine, which comes from tobacco. Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies them as "tobacco products." A survey conducted by The University of Cape Town, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the Tobacco Control Data Initiative (TCDI), found that 4% of urban South Africans were regularly using e-cigarettes (used an e-cigarette at least once a week).

Further the survey found that among people who regularly used e-cigarettes before ever regularly smoking combustible cigarettes, the survey found that one in five (19%) were “on-rampers” (had since started smoking combustible cigarettes and were still smoking at the time of the survey), while people who started using e-cigarettes after regularly smoking combustible cigarettes, one in eight (13%) were “off-rampers" (had since stopped smoking combustible cigarettes).

Although there isn't enough research to indicate the relationship between the use of e-cigarettes (vaping) and lung cancer diagnoses as yet, it is important to note the relationship between vaping and the use of combustible cigarettes and to remember that tobacco remains an important risk factor for lung cancer.

Support structures are key

One of the ways you can become informed is by engaging in conversation with community groups like Campaigning for Cancer (C4C). C4C hosts several campaigns and projects aimed at informing communities about cancer and how to take preventative measures against it.

While many people who have been diagnosed with lung cancer lead very healthy lives, there are many whose actions have led to an undesirable cancer diagnosis.

You have the chance to take preventative measures to stay healthy for yourself and your loved ones by going for lung screenings to ensure early detection and to be able to take full advantage of the life you’ve been given. Spend your last breath knowing you did everything you could to live a life that took your breath away, in the best possible way.