Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Written by Jaime Herndon | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells rapidly multiply and don’t stop reproducing. The disease can develop anywhere in the body. Treatment is based on its location. When it originates in the lungs, it is lung cancer. There are two main kinds of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is also called lung adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), this is the most common kind of lung cancer, comprising 85 to 90 percent of lung cancer diagnoses (ACS, 2012). It does not grow as quickly as small cell lung cancer.

There are three main kinds of NSCLC: adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and large cell carcinomas.

What Causes NSCLC?

A number of factors can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Smoking cigarettes or being exposed to secondhand smoke is a main risk factor for the disease. Exposure to asbestos and certain paints or chemicals may also increase your risk.

While you may not be able to completely prevent NSCLC, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing the disease. If you smoke cigarettes, quit. Talk with your doctor about tools that can help you quit smoking and about any support groups that exist. Exposure to the chemical radon can increase your risk of the disease. Have your house tested for radon and treated if necessary.

Symptoms of NSCLC

In its early stages, NSCLC usually does not cause any symptoms. When symptoms start to develop, they can include:

  • persistent cough
  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • unintentional and unexplained weight loss
  • breathing problems
  • joint or bone pain
  • weakness
  • coughing up blood

How Is NSCLC Diagnosed?

Along with a physical exam and medical history, a variety of tests can help your doctor diagnose lung cancer. Tests your doctor may order include:

  • bone scan
  • imaging tests like MRI, CT scan, and PET scan
  • microscopic examination of sputum (phlegm) to check for cancer cells
  • biopsy of lung (a piece of lung tissue is removed for testing)

Once the diagnosis of cancer has been confirmed, the cancer will be staged. Staging is the way doctors classify the cancer according to its spread in the body. NSCLC has five stages, from Stage 0 to Stage IV, in order of increasing severity.

Outlook and treatment is based on the stage. Stage IV disease is typically not curable. At this stage, treatment is usually aimed at symptom relief and death preparation.

Treatment of NSCLC

Treatment for NSCLC can vary, based on the stage of disease, your health, and other factors. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment option for you and the possible side effects. Different modes of treatment may be combined to yield the best results.

Early stages of NSCLC may be treated with surgery if it has not spread far. Removal of a lobe or larger part of the lung may be necessary, and in some cases removal of the entire lung.

Chemotherapy uses medications to help kill cancer cells. It is taken orally or given intravenously (through a vein). This allows the drugs to travel through the bloodstream and kill cancer cells throughout the body.

Radiation uses high-energy rays from a machine to kill cancer cells and ease pain and other symptoms.

Targeted therapies are drugs that target specific aspects of the cancer cell, like growth factors or blood vessels that feed the tumor. They are often used with more advanced cancers and may not be appropriate for everyone.

Outlook for NSCLC

Your outlook depends on a variety of factors. Some people who are diagnosed with NSCLC are successfully treated and go on to live normal lives. However, late detection, delayed treatment, or late stage cancer of any kind is fatal. Early detection and treatment is crucial in your recovery from NSCLC.

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