May is Lung Health Awareness Month, so we took the opportunity to sit down with Thoracic Surgeon, Mr Naveed Alam from St Vincent’s Private Hospital Melbourne, for a fascinating chat about the low-down on our lungs and how we can take better care of them.

We all understand the basic function that our lungs play – they allow us to breath in oxygen that our body needs to live and function properly, while also exhaling carbon dioxide from our body – this is the waste gas that is produced as a part of the body’s energy-making process.

Yet, a little further explanation from Mr Alam reveals that the lungs are much more complex than that.

When we asked of some of the signs of our lung health becoming compromised, it became quite clear how vital our lungs really are. As Mr Alam pointed out, “when we can’t breathe well, our body is deprived of the oxygen it requires. This can in turn lead to various organ systems also being compromised – we might experience shortness of breath, chest pain, light-headedness, muscle aches – they’re all responses to a lack of oxygen”. In fact, every organ system in our body is reliant on the lungs.

Like anything in life, when we begin to realise just how important they are to us, we want to make sure we’re doing what we can to take care of them properly. When it comes to the lungs, however, the answers aren’t always obvious.

Smoking, of course, is the big one. Mr Alam pointed out that while smoking cessation education has had a generally positive impact on the incidents of lung cancer in Australia – in men the incidents have decreased, while in women it has plateaued – we need to ensure that we continue to put our best foot forward in this area.

More interestingly, however, it seems the incidence of lung cancer in non-smokers has in fact increased.

Why is this happening? Mr Alam points out, ‘It’s difficult to know exactly, but we suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that we’re now living longer. Our lung health will naturally deteriorate as we get older, so in a sense, it’s not surprising to see more cases of lung cancer. At the same time, we’re also a lot better now at detecting it.”

Taking good care of our lungs, therefore, becomes even more important. The good news is that there are some really simple things we can be doing.

Firstly, avoiding air pollutants wherever possible is quite important. Air quality is one of the biggest risks to our lung health, and in Australia we thankfully enjoy a relatively good air quality, even in the bigger cities – even more so in the country.

But there are some work places and industries that do expose our workers to various levels of air pollutants, so if this is you, make sure you’re wearing the right protective equipment at all times.

For the rest of us, exercise is really important. Doing cardio – running, cycling, swimming for example – strengthens the effectiveness of our heart and lungs working together, which will definitely come in handy as we get older. Carrying extra weight can also impact the health of our lungs and how well they function, particularly as we grow older, so any exercise we can manage is going to help us.

Having spent the past 14-plus years at St Vincent’s Private, Mr Alam is very passionate about educating not only the next generation of Thoracic surgeons, but also educating the wider population about lung health and lung cancer.

As Mr Alam pointed out, “Lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer worldwide, but there is often a stigma attached to those who contract it, as there’s a general feeling that they’ve brought it upon themselves. This kind of attitude can have a detrimental impact on our ability to effectively treat the disease. Lung cancer screening is available, much like it is for many other cancers, yet it’s expensive and our governments are reluctant to spend the money. Those countries that do provide lung cancer screening are showing some really positive signs, so there is a political and medical discussion that is really important for us to have in this area.”

Mr Naveed Alam offers treatment in both St Vincent’s public and private hospitals. His interests range from minimally invasive thoracic surgery to airway surgery and thoracic oncology and teaching. Speak to your GP for more information and a referral.

Mr Naveed Alam is located at:
East Melbourne Heart & Lung
Suite 1, Level 5 55 Victoria Parade
Fitzroy VIC 3065
Phone: (03) 9419 2477

Website: www.emhl.com.au