Douglas G. Lowell, MD
General and Thoracic Surgeon
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer is cancer that forms in tissues of the lung, usually in the cells that line the air passages. It is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.
There are two main types: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. These two types grow differently and are treated differently. Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common type.
Who is at risk for lung cancer?
Lung cancer can affect anyone, but there are certain factors that raise your risk of getting it:
- Smoking. This is the most important risk factor for lung cancer. Tobacco smoking causes about 9 out of 10 cases of lung cancer in men and about 8 out of 10 cases of lung cancer in women. The earlier in life you start smoking, the longer you smoke, and the more cigarettes you smoke per day, the greater your risk of lung cancer. The risk is also greater if you smoke a lot and drink alcohol every day or take beta carotene supplements. If you have quit smoking, your risk will be lower than if you had kept smoking. But you will still have a higher risk than people who never smoked.
- Secondhand smoke, which is the combination of smoke that comes from a cigarette and smoke breathed out by a smoker. When you inhale it, you are exposed to the same cancer-causing agents as smokers, although in smaller amounts.
- Family history of lung cancer
- Being exposed to asbestos, arsenic, chromium, beryllium, nickel, soot, or tar in the workplace
- Being exposed to radiation, such as from
- HIV infection
- Air pollution
What are the symptoms of lung cancer?
Sometimes lung cancer does not cause any signs or symptoms. It may be found during a chest x-ray done for another condition.
If you do have symptoms, they may include
- Chest pain or discomfort
- A cough that doesn't go away or gets worse over time
- Trouble breathing
- Blood in sputum (mucus coughed up from the lungs)
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Trouble swallowing
- Swelling in the face and/or veins in the neck
How is lung cancer diagnosed?
To make a diagnosis, your health care provider
- Will ask about your medical history and family history
- Will do a physical exam
- Will probably do imaging tests, such as a chest x-ray or chest CT scan
- May do lab tests, including tests of your blood and sputum
- May do a biopsy of the lung
If you do have lung cancer, your provider will do other tests to find out how far it has spread through the lungs, lymph nodes, and the rest of the body. This is called staging. Knowing the type and stage of lung cancer you have helps your provider decide what kind of treatment you need.
What are the treatments for lung cancer?
For most patients with lung cancer, current treatments do not cure the cancer.
Your treatment will depend on which type of lung cancer you have, how far it has spread, your overall health, and other factors. You may get more than one type of treatment.
The treatments for small cell lung cancer include
- Radiation therapy
- Laser therapy, which uses a laser beam to kill cancer cells
- Endoscopic stent placement. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument used to look at tissues inside the body. It may be used to put in a device called a stent. The stent helps to open an airway that has been blocked by abnormal tissue.
The treatments for non-small cell lung cancer include
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy, which uses drugs or other substances that attack specific cancer cells with less harm to normal cells
- Laser therapy
- Photodynamic therapy (PDT), which uses a medicine and a certain type of laser light to kill cancer cells
- Cryosurgery, which uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue
- Electrocautery, a treatment that uses a probe or needle heated by an electric current to destroy abnormal tissue
Can lung cancer be prevented?
Avoiding the risk factors may help to prevent lung cancer:
- Quitting smoking. If you don't smoke, don't start.
- Lower your exposure to hazardous substances at work
- Lower your exposure to radon. Radon tests can show whether your home has high levels of radon. You can buy a test kit yourself or hire a professional to do the test.
NIH: National Cancer Institute