This Week in Health: A breath test for lung cancer

women yoga exercise class
Women with breast cancer are not getting enough exercise, which could improve their prognosis.
Credit: ThinkStock

Breath test for lung cancer in the works

Location of study: U.S.

Results: Scientists are developing a breath test that could “totally revolutionize” the way lung cancer is diagnosed. Blowing up a balloon is all it takes — the test works by detecting volatile organic compounds that are present in exhaled breath. From there, a handheld device uses a sensor to trap and analyze key compounds. In a recent study, the test was able to sniff out lung cancer with 85 percent accuracy. It could also tell the difference between early-stage disease and late-stage lung cancer.

Significance: For people at higher risk for lung cancer, annual CT scans are recommended to screen for the disease. While yearly scans have been shown to cut lung cancer deaths, they’re also associated with false positives. “What we are pursuing is using this test for early detection of lung cancer,” said Dr. Fred R. Hirsch, professor of medical oncology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

 

Over 10,000 suicides linked to recession

Location of study: North America and Europe

Results: New research suggests that the global recession of 2008 may have contributed to more than 10,000 suicides. In the United States, suicide rates went up 4.8 percent between 2007 and 2010. According to researchers from the University of Oxford, rates across Europe, Canada and the U.S. rose four times higher among men after 2007. They say that during tough economic times, job loss, home repossession and debt are significant risk factors.

Significance: “We do know that almost every time there’s a suicide, there’s a mental health problem,” said Dr. Scott Poland, an expert in suicide intervention from Nova Southeastern University. According to Poland, who was not involved in the Oxford study, financial hardships can contribute to the risk, but are typically not enough on their own to prompt a suicide attempt. More often than not, underlying mental health issues play the largest role.

 

Fasting may help repair damaged immune system

Location of study: U.S.

Results: Periods of not eating for several days might be good for the body, protecting against damage to the immune system. Researchers from the University of Southern California found that prolonged fasting might even trigger immune system regeneration. In a recent study, extended periods of fasting drastically reduced white blood cell counts in mice and humans in early trials. During these periods, the body recycles old, damaged immune cells in an effort to save energy. When white blood cells go down, it ignites the regeneration of new immune system cells.

Significance: Prolonged fasting was found to cut levels of a growth-factor hormone called IGF-1, which has been associated with tumor growth, cancer and aging. The study is especially relevant for cancer patients, who experience immune system damage from chemotherapy. Fasting may help counteract this, researchers say. The findings are equally exciting for people with immune system disorders. 

 

Many breast cancer patients don’t get enough exercise

Location of study: U.S.

Study subjects: 1,700 women who had been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer

Results: New research indicates that most breast cancer patients do not get enough exercise following their diagnosis. Of the women involved in the study, a little over one-third met physical activity guidelines after their diagnosis. When compared to white women, African-American women were less likely to meet the guidelines.

Significance: Physical activity is linked to prolonged survival and better quality of life in breast cancer patients. Experts at BreastCancer.org report that regular exercise can help stave off cancer recurrence and that it’s safe to exercise during and after treatment. Even so, she and her team found that 59 percent of women in the study reported a decrease in activity roughly six months after their diagnosis. What’s more is that African American women were about 40 percent less likely to get the recommended amount of exercise. This is particularly noteworthy as African-American breast cancer patients in general experience higher mortality rates.



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