Lung Cancer — Challenge to Doctors and Patients
Lung cancer is one of the most diagnosed forms of cancers in Korea, where it came second from 2003 to 2005, according to the Health Ministry.
Dr. Shim Young-mog of Samsung Medical Center agrees that the disease is a difficult challenge. ``It's easily spread to bones, leading to terminal status,'' he says. Not only the bones, but the esophagus, bladder and larynx could also be affected.
Like many other tough diseases, its exact cause has yet to be confirmed. Shim says that smoking, however, is one of the strongest suspects, while asbestos and some other chemicals have strong connections as well. The disease is challenging for doctors but causes great pain and fear in patients.
``Just imagine not being able to breathe and immense pressure on your chest. If you can't breath even briefly you fear for your life ― that's how patients feel. Their status can become critical and they can feel they're on the verge of death very suddenly and frequently, a cause of great pain and upset,'' he says.
Shim says the main reason lung cancer usually leads to death is late detection. ``Most patients feel nothing strange when they come to me,'' he said. Though the lung is one of the most important organs, lung tests have yet to be regarded as a National Health Insurance annual examination subject, leading to lung cancer often going undetected in the early stages. Symptoms such as slight difficulty breathing and slight hemoptysis indicate clearly that it's too late, he says, adding that medicine has markedly improved in recent years and that those in stage three of their cancer can undergo operations no one dared to 10 years ago, leading to a recently increased survival rate.
Don't Be Fooled!
Thoracoscopy has also made surgery much easier and less risky for doctors and patients and with the help of endoscopes, patients bleed less and shock to the body decreases dramatically. The safety of the procedure has long been a hot issue as the lung is a sensitive area, but recent studies showed its effectiveness.
Though Shim is considered the leader of his field, he's still very cautious about his work. ``Doctors should be able to look at every aspect of the patient and the disease. One should not take risks with patients' lives,'' he said, adding that recent claims of drugs having ``dramatic effects'' are insignificant to actual treatment. ``Besides, they're really expensive,'' he said.
Shim also tells patients not to be fooled by ``alternative remedies,'' claiming most are nonsense. ``Eating the right food is never bad but once you have developed cancer, I doubt a healthy diet will cure it,'' he says.
``There are very rare cases of cancer cells disappearing without a known cause, just as they developed, but never because of food. It's just a natural outcome that doctors have yet to detect the root of,'' he said, asking patients not to overspend on phony alternative treatment.
The fatality rate for lung cancer shouldn't be underestimated by being compared to that of prostate cancer or thyroid cancer. Shim claims that while the latter two are classified as rather safe cancers ― slow to develop and easier to treat ― lung cancer develops more quickly and is more complicated. ``One should therefore not be fooled by statistics that imply thoracic surgeons are less skillful,'' he said, adding that Korea's surgical technique is world class. Still, he admits its limits, stressing the importance of basic research.
``I think that Korean doctors perform at the same level, or in some cases better, than those from other so-called `developed countries.' However, we are good at adaptation only and lack creativity. Unless we fill the gaps, we will never be able to lead the world in the medical field. I'm not optimistic that we will, as our country is too focused on short-term outcomes,'' he said, criticizing government policies and the social atmosphere.
``I hope we come up with innovative surgical procedures or medication to fight the disease,'' he replied when about the future direction of lung cancer.
Shim graduated from Seoul National University and worked at the Korea Institute of Radiological and Medical Sciences before working for Samsung Medical Center. After serving in numerous lucrative positions, Shim is now chief of the hospital's cancer center, the nation's largest cancer treatment center.
Shim is also a member of the National Academy of Medicine of Korea and takes his staff on hiking biannually in the fall.