Lung Cancer Basics
About Lung Cancer
Lung cancer originates in the lungs, but can spread to other parts of the body. Cancer that begins elsewhere but spreads to the lungs is not lung cancer.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lung cancer is the second most diagnosed cancer in the United States. Nonsmokers can get lung cancer too, but smoking is the leading cause. In the past few decades, the rate of lung cancer has fallen at about the same rate as cigarette smoking.
Who Gets It and Why
Anyone can get lung cancer, but certain factors put you at greater risk. Smoking is the number one risk factor. You are also at increased risk if you have a family history of lung cancer, especially a parent or sibling.
Other dangers include exposure to secondhand smoke, radon gas, or asbestos. Substances like arsenic, nickel, and chromium can also pose a risk. Smokers who are exposed to additional cancer-causing agents are at even greater risk.
People with early stage lung cancer are often unaware that anything is wrong. As the cancer grows, a chronic cough may develop. Smokers may notice a change in their “smoker’s cough” or may start coughing up blood. Many patients report hoarseness, wheezing, and frequent shortness of breath. You may also experience chest pain, bone pain, or headache. Unexplained weight loss is a common symptom of cancer.
Imaging tests like X-ray and computed tomography (CT) scan can help diagnose lung cancer. Sputum can be analyzed for cancer cells (sputum cytology) under a microscope. A biopsy is test in which a doctor takes a tissue sample so it can be analyzed under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells.
There are several ways to obtain the sample. A doctor can get lung tissue by inserting a needle through the chest into the lung (needle biopsy). To acquire lymph node samples, a surgical instrument can be inserted through an incision at the base of the neck (mediastinoscopy).
What “Staging” Means
Stage I means the tumor is less than five centimeters and hasn’t spread outside the lung. Stage II means the tumor is larger than five centimeters. It could also mean the tumor is smaller, but nearby tissues like the diaphragm, chest wall, or lymph nodes are involved.
In stage III, the tumor is larger and has invaded nearby organs. It may also indicate a smaller tumor along with the presence of lung cancer cells in distant lymph nodes. Stage IV is when cancer spreads to the second lung or more distant areas.
Your treatment options depend a great deal upon details unique to you. Surgery is often necessary to remove the tumor and some surrounding tissue, part of the lung or airways, or the whole lung.
Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. Radiation therapy also kills cancer cells and can be targeted to specific areas.
It’s not always possible to know if there are any cancer cells left in your body, so your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments.
Laser therapy uses a narrow beam of light. Photodynamic therapy combines laser light with drugs to kill cancer cells. Cryosurgery freezes and destroys abnormal tissue and electrocautery uses a needle heated by electric current to kill the cells. Monoclonal antibodies and tyrosine kinase inhibitors are targeted therapies that prevent cancer cells from growing.
You can also ask your doctor about clinical trials used to test newer cancer treatments. Many cancer patients find comfort in local support groups.
Complications of Lung Cancer
Shortness of breath and pain can impact your quality of life. Another complication of lung cancer is pleural effusion. That’s when fluid accumulates in the area around the lung. If that happens, you’ll need to have fluid drained from your chest.
A serious complication of lung cancer is metastasis. That’s when cancer spreads to distant areas like the brain, liver, adrenal glands, or bones. Metastatic cancer can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including increased pain. Various treatments can help manage symptoms.
Lung cancer can be fatal. According to the CDC, it is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. It is important to note, however, that your long-term outlook depends on many factors, including your overall health, age, and choice of treatment. Stage at diagnosis is an important factor when considering prognosis. The highest survival rates are for those whose lung cancer is diagnosed during stage I or stage II.
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