Lung Cancer

What is lung cancer?

Back to top

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. As with other types of cancer, lung cancer is known to spread to other parts of the body, especially the lymph nodes and brain. Additionally, cancer in other organs may also spread to the lungs. There are several types of lung cancer, each with its own prognosis and treatment regimen.

If you suspect you have lung cancer, it is important to see a pulmonologist as soon as possible. Most lung cancers are slow-moving, but early diagnosis is critical to a fast recovery. If you are experiencing any symptoms of lung cancer, or if you have lung cancer in your family, talk to your doctor or schedule an appointment with a pulmonologist.

What causes lung cancer?

Back to top

Around 90 percent of lung cancer cases are a result of smoking tobacco. Exposure to smoke, whether secondhand or directly inhaled, damages cells. Once lung cells are damaged, they begin to behave abnormally. In some cases, this can cause mutations that result in lung cancer. By stopping smoking, individuals can lower their risk of lung cancer over time. However, the effects of long-term and heavy smoking can take up to 20 years to reverse.

The second leading cause of lung cancer is exposure to radon. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. It enters buildings through cracks in the foundation. You cannot see or smell radon, but it is easy and inexpensive to test your home for the substance.

After smoking and radon, lung cancer causes become more diffuse and varied. Here are a few other substances that are known to cause lung cancer in humans.

  • Nickel
  • Cadmium
  • Uranium
  • Arsenic
  • Chromium
  • Petroleum (only some products)

Additionally, some genetic conditions may predispose a person to developing lung cancer. If you have a familial history of this cancer, it is important to see a pulmonologist consistently.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

Back to top

Most lung cancer symptoms are similar regardless of the type of cancer you have. Early symptoms often include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Phlegm
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Facial swelling
  • Cough, which worsens over time
  • Loss of appetite

Some people with lung cancer may also experience recurring respiratory infections, like bronchitis and pneumonia.

As you can see, many early lung cancer symptoms may resemble other common conditions, such as a cold or flu. This can make early lung cancer diagnosis especially tricky. As the cancer spreads, additional symptoms may occur depending on where new tumors form. This might include the following:

  • Headache, balance issues, and dizziness
  • Yellowing of skin and eyes
  • Lumps on the neck or collarbone
  • Bone pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Seizures

If you are experiencing any of these more severe symptoms, it is important to see a doctor immediately. They will likely refer you to a pulmonologist or oncologist for a cancer screening.

Are there different types of lung cancer?

Back to top

Yes, there are several different types of lung cancer. The most common is called non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC. This type of lung cancer comprises between 80 and 85 percent of all cases. These types of lung cancers aren’t typically aggressive, and they may not invade surrounding tissue for some time. However, there are some fast-growing types of NSCLC, most of which are carcinoma and large-cell tumors.

Small-cell lung cancer, or SCLC, comprises between 15 and 20 percent of all lung cancers. Unlike NSCLCs, these grow and spread faster. However, small-cell lung cancers also respond well to chemotherapy. In some cases, lung cancer tumors may include both SCLC and NSCLC cells.

Finally, mesothelioma is a rare but dangerous type of lung cancer. This is often associated with asbestos exposure. Early mesothelioma symptoms typically look like a common cold, which can make it difficult to receive an early diagnosis.

The type of lung cancer you have will determine your treatment options and prognosis. After diagnosis, your doctor will provide a variety of medicines and treatments that suit your personal health outlook.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Back to top

Diagnosing lung cancer involves a variety of tests. After receiving a full and detailed medical history, your pulmonologist will choose from a range of diagnostic tools. This can include any of the following:

  • Sputum cytology, which allows the doctor to check for cancer cells in phlegm
  • Imaging tests, which can illustrate where an abnormal mass may be growing
  • Mediastinoscopy, which is a surgical procedure used to biopsy lymph nodes
  • Bronchoscopy, which is a surgical procedure used to examine the lungs internally with a small light or camera
  • Needle biopsy, which allows the doctor to extract a sample of potentially cancerous lung tissue

In many cases, a doctor will begin with imaging tests to check for tumors. If a tumor is found, or if symptoms are persistent, they will likely move to a test or surgical procedure that includes a biopsy. Once a sample of the suspicious tissue is extracted, they will examine it for cancer cells.

As with many cancers, a lung cancer diagnostic process can be very involved. If your doctor recommends more than a couple of tests, know this is only because they want to ensure you receive the diagnosis and treatment you need.

What are common lung cancer treatments?

Back to top

Your lung cancer treatment will depend on the progression of the cancer. If your cancer has not yet spread, it may be treated with a simple surgery to remove cancerous tissue. Your doctor may suggest a wedge resection, a segmental resection, a lobectomy, or a pneumonectomy, depending on how much cancerous tissue exists. If the cancer has spread beyond the lungs, or if the tissue is not easily removed, your doctor may recommend a different treatment course.

  • Radiation Therapy: This treatment uses high-powered energy beams to kill cancer cells. Many with more advanced lung cancer may receive radiation treatments before surgery. Radiation therapy can also relieve symptoms and pain.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a variety of drugs that kill cancer cells. It can be administered orally or intravenously. Chemotherapy is often used after a surgery to remove any cancer cells that may remain.
  • Immunotherapy: This type of treatment uses the patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer. This treatment is generally reserved for individuals who have locally advanced lung cancers.

Many lung cancer patients will receive a combination of therapies and medications. This multi-medicine approach can both remove and kill cancer cells. Talk to your doctor about which treatment option is best for your lung cancer diagnosis.

Are there any ways to prevent lung cancer?

Back to top

There are several strategies to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer. Quitting smoking is the best and fastest option. If you have trouble doing this on your own, ask your doctor about medications and therapies that may help. Additionally, do your best to avoid secondhand smoke.

Other lung cancer prevention strategies include testing your home for radon. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that all homes be tested for radon every two years and after home renovations and remodels. Finally, remaining careful and vigilant at work, as well as avoiding carcinogens, can help prevent lung cancers from forming.

What is the outlook for people with lung cancer?

Back to top

Some people with lung cancer will heal completely, while others may die of the disease. After a diagnosis, your doctor will provide a detailed description of your outlook, how well you may respond to treatment, and which treatments will be necessary.

If you have a lung cancer diagnosis, it is important to receive palliative care and seek support. Palliative care is designed to minimize cancer symptoms and any side effects treatments may cause. Additionally, ask your doctor for support with coping with shortness of breath. This is a common symptom for lung cancer patients, and it can be extremely uncomfortable. Supplemental oxygen and medications can help, as can relaxation and breathing exercises.

If you are at high risk for developing lung cancer, talk to your doctor about a lung cancer screening. This test is typically a low-dose CT scan, and it is recommended for adults who have no symptoms but who are at high risk. This can be a good way to catch cancer in its early stage.