Joe Paterno Diagnosed With Lung Cancer: What Are The Signs And Risks?

Joe Paterno, former Penn State football coach, has lung cancer, his son said in a statement to the Associated Press today.

Paterno's son, Scott, said in the statement that the lung cancer is treatable, and that Paterno is undergoing treatments now, the Associated Press reported. Paterno had been previously sick with bronchial illness and learned of the diagnosis at a follow up appointment last weekend.

Paterno, 84, was recently fired from the university amidst allegations that his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused young boys.

The news of Paterno's cancer happens to come during Lung Cancer Awareness Month, aimed at raising education and awareness around the disease.

Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic. The National Cancer Institute reports that there have been 221,130 new cases of lung cancer so far this year, and 156,940 deaths from the disease.

Risk for the disease is highest among smokers, according to the Mayo Clinic, though lung cancer can also occur in never-smokers, too.

In fact, there is some research to suggest that lung cancer in smokers may actually be a separate disease from lung cancer in never-smokers; a study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research conference last year suggested that there are DNA differences in the tumors from lung cancer in smokers and lung cancer in nonsmokers, LiveScience reported.

Researchers said at the World Conference on Lung Cancer that it can also be caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, radon gas and other carcinogens, as well as air pollution, the American Cancer Society reported. Family history may also play a role.

The cancer occurs when tumors form in lung tissue, most commonly in the cells that line the air passages, according to the National Cancer Institute. There are two main types: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer tends to be more aggressive than non-small cell lung cancer, according to Cedars Sinai.

Signs of lung cancer include coughing up blood, a new cough or a changed chronic cough, wheezing and chest pain, becoming hoarse, weight loss and bone pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms may not be evident in the early stages of lung cancer.

Lung screening, biopsy and sputum cytology (where your sputum is looked at under a microscope) can be used to find and/or diagnose lung cancer, though screening for lung cancer in healthy people is controversial among doctors, the Mayo Clinic reported.

Just last month, a study funded by the National Cancer Institute showed that getting a routine X-ray to detect lung cancer didn't lower the amount of lung cancer-related deaths among both smokers and nonsmokers, the Associated Press reported.

Other imaging methods -- like CT scans, MRI and PET scans -- can detect what stage the cancer is in, according to the Mayo Clinic. The earlier the stage, the better -- stage 1 lung cancer means that the cancer is small and is only in the lung and hasn't spread anywhere else, while stage 4 cancer means that the cancer has spread far to other parts of the body. Treatment and curing of the cancer often depends on the stage of the cancer.

Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, the Mayo Clinic reported, and alternative therapies like acupuncture, massage, meditation and hypnosis can also help relieve symptoms. The treatment of the cancer depends on whether it's small cell or non-small cell lung cancer; small cell is usually treated with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy, while non-small cell lung cancer, if early enough in stage, can be treated surgically, though radiation or chemotherapy may also be used, according to Cedars-Sinai.

Paterno joins numerous other celebrities who have battled lung cancer. News anchor Peter Jennings, who was a heavy smoker, died of the cancer in 2005, as did Dana Reeve, the wife of actor Christopher Reeve (Dana Reeve never smoked), CBS News reported.

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