What Is Lung Cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. When cancer starts in the lungs, it is called lung cancer.
Lung cancer begins in the lungs and may spread to lymph nodes or other organs in the body, such as the brain. Cancer from other organs also may spread to the lungs. When cancer cells spread from one organ to another, they are called metastases.
Lung cancers usually are grouped into two main types called small cell and non-small cell. These types of lung cancer grow differently and are treated differently. Non-small cell lung cancer is more common than small cell lung cancer.
What Are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer?
Different people have different symptoms for lung cancer. Some people have symptoms related to the lungs. Some people whose lung cancer has spread to other parts of the body (metastasized) have symptoms specific to that part of the body. Some people just have general symptoms of not feeling well. Most people with lung cancer don’t have symptoms until the cancer is advanced. Lung cancer symptoms may include—
- Coughing that gets worse or doesn’t go away.
- Chest pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Coughing up blood.
- Feeling very tired all the time.
- Weight loss with no known cause.
Other changes that can sometimes occur with lung cancer may include repeated bouts of pneumonia and swollen or enlarged lymph nodes (glands) inside the chest in the area between the lungs.
These symptoms can happen with other illnesses, too. If you have some of these symptoms, talk to your doctor, who can help find the cause.
What Are the Risk Factors for Lung Cancer?
Research has found several risk factors that may increase your chances of getting lung cancer.
Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. In the United States, cigarette smoking is linked to about 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths. Using other tobacco products such as cigars or pipes also increases the risk for lung cancer. Tobacco smoke is a toxic mix of more than 7,000 chemicals. Many are poisons. At least 70 are known to cause cancer in people or animals.
People who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. Even smoking a few cigarettes a day or smoking occasionally increases the risk of lung cancer. The more years a person smokes and the more cigarettes smoked each day, the more risk goes up.
People who quit smoking have a lower risk of lung cancer than if they had continued to smoke, but their risk is higher than the risk for people who never smoked. Quitting smoking at any age can lower the risk of lung cancer.
Cigarette smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body. Cigarette smoking causes cancer of the mouth and throat, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, liver, pancreas, voicebox (larynx), trachea, bronchus, kidney and renal pelvis, urinary bladder, and cervix, and causes acute myeloid leukemia.
For free help to quit smoking, call the S.C. Tobacco Quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) open 24 hours a day / 7 days a week or enroll online for free help.
Secondhand smoke and the harmful chemicals in it are known causes of sudden infant death syndrome, respiratory infections, ear infections, and asthma attacks in infants and children. They are also known causes of heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer in adult nonsmokers.
Smoke from other people’s cigarettes, pipes, or cigars also causes lung cancer. When a person breathes in secondhand smoke, it is like he or she is smoking. In the United States, one out of four people who don’t smoke, including 14 million children, were exposed to secondhand smoke during 2013–2014.
Radon is a cancer causing, naturally occurring gas that comes from rocks and dirt and can get trapped in houses and buildings. It cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) radon causes about 20,000 cases of lung cancer each year, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer. Nearly one out of every 15 homes in the United States is thought to have high radon levels. The EPA recommends testing homes for radon and using proven ways to lower high radon levels. The only way to determine if your home is trapping radon gas is to test.
Examples of substances found at some workplaces that increase risk include asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust, and some forms of silica and chromium. For many of these substances, the risk of getting lung cancer is even higher for those who smoke.
If you are a lung cancer survivor, there is a risk that you may develop another lung cancer, especially if you smoke. Your risk of lung cancer may be higher if your parents, brothers or sisters, or children have had lung cancer. This could be true because they also smoke, or they live or work in the same place where they are exposed to radon and other substances that can cause lung cancer.
Cancer survivors who had radiation therapy to the chest are at higher risk of lung cancer.
Scientists are studying many different foods and dietary supplements to see whether they change the risk of getting lung cancer. There is much we still need to know. We do know that smokers who take beta-carotene supplements have increased risk of lung cancer.
Also, arsenic in drinking water (primarily from private wells) can increase the risk of lung cancer
Who Should Be Screened for Lung Cancer?
Screening means testing for a disease when there are no symptoms or history of that disease. Doctors recommend a screening test to find a disease early, when treatment may work better.
The only recommended screening test for lung cancer is low-dose computed tomography (also called a low-dose CT scan, or LDCT). During an LDCT scan, you lie on a table and an X-ray machine uses a low dose (amount) of radiation to make detailed images of your lungs. The scan only takes a few minutes and is not painful.
Who Should Be Screened?
In 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended yearly lung cancer screening with LDCT for people who—
- Have a history of heavy smoking, and
- Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and
- Are between 55 and 80 years old.
Heavy smoking means a smoking history of 30 pack years or more. A pack year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 30 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years.
- Has not smoked in 15 or more years, or
- Develops a health problem that makes him or her unwilling or unable to have surgery if lung cancer is found.
What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Lung Cancer?
You can help lower your risk of lung cancer in the following ways—
- Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking causes about 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths in the United States. The most important thing you can do to prevent lung cancer is to not start smoking, or to quit if you smoke.
- Avoid secondhand smoke. Smoke from other people’s cigarettes, cigars, or pipes is called secondhand smoke. Make your home and car smoke-free.
- Get your home tested for radon. Request a free DHEC radon test kit.
- Be careful at work. Health and safety guidelines in the workplace can help workers avoid carcinogens—things that can cause cancer.
How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed and Treated?
Types of Lung Cancer
The two main types of lung cancer are small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. These categories refer to what the cancer cells look like under a microscope. Non-small cell lung cancer is more common than small cell lung cancer.
If you have lung cancer (especially non-small cell lung cancer), your doctor may run test to find out if you have a change in your genes (genetic mutation). The results of these tests help your doctor know which treatments will work best for you.
If lung cancer is diagnosed, other tests are done to find out how far it has spread through the lungs, lymph nodes, and the rest of the body. This process is called staging. The type and stage of lung cancer tells doctors what kind of treatment you need. For more information, visit Stages of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer and Stages of Small Cell Lung Cancer
Types of Treatment
Lung cancer is treated in several ways, depending on the type of lung cancer and how far it has spread. People with non-small cell lung cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these treatments. People with small cell lung cancer are usually treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
- Surgery. An operation where doctors cut out cancer tissue.
- Chemotherapy. Using special medicines to shrink or kill the cancer. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given in your veins, or sometimes both.
- Radiation therapy. Using high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to kill the cancer.
- Targeted therapy. Using drugs to block the growth and spread of cancer cells. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given in your veins.
Doctors from different specialties often work together to treat lung cancer. Pulmonologists are doctors who are experts in diseases of the lungs. Surgeons are doctors who perform operations. Thoracic surgeons specialize in chest, heart, and lung surgery. Medical oncologists are doctors who treat cancer with medicines. Radiation oncologists are doctors who treat cancers with radiation.