In 2016, 224,390 people in the United States will be diagnosed with lung cancer. The diagnosis of lung cancer is very serious. Lung cancer kills more people than colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined. It is more common in men than in women, and African American men are 20 percent more likely than Caucasian men to have lung cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment are important for survival.
There are two types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Most people diagnosed with lung cancer have non-small cell lung cancer. For each type of cancer, the outlook and the treatment will differ. Non-small cell lung cancer is divided into three subtypes — adenocarcinoma, squamous cell, and large cell — and usually grows slower than small cell lung cancers. Small cell lung cancers are more aggressive and in most cases have already spread to other areas of the body at the time of diagnosis.
In addition to the two main types of lung cancers, other types of tumors can also occur in the lungs. Called carcinoids, these tumors grow slower than other types of lung cancer. Carcinoids typically form in the airways of the lungs, in the bronchi (large airways), or bronchioles (narrow airways). A person may have different symptoms depending on where the tumor is growing, and the treatment may be different depending on where, exactly, the tumor is located.
Carcinoids don’t usually spread to other areas of the body. They aren’t caused by smoking.
There are several different tests that will allow your doctor to make a lung cancer diagnosis:
If you have any symptoms of lung cancer, your doctor may order a chest X-ray. A chest X-ray of someone with lung cancer may show a visible mass or nodule. This mass will look like a white spot on your lungs, while the lung itself will appear black. However, an X-ray may not be able to detect small or early-stage cancers.
A computed tomography (CT) scan is often ordered if there is something abnormal on the chest X-ray. A CT scan takes a cross-sectional and a more detailed image of the lung. It can give more information about any abnormalities, nodules, or lesions — small, abnormal areas in the lungs that were seen on X-ray. A CT scan can detect smaller lesions that are not visible on a chest X-ray. Cancerous lesions can often be distinguished from benign lesions on chest CT scans.
Your doctor cannot give you a cancer diagnosis with only an image from a CT scan or an X-ray. If they are concerned about the results of your image tests they will order a tissue biopsy.
In a biopsy, your physician will take a tissue sample from your lungs for examination. This sample may be removed via a tube placed down your throat (bronchoscopy) or by making an incision in the chest wall and using a needle to collect the sample. This sample can then be analyzed by a pathologist to determine if you have cancer.
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. Even if you don’t smoke, being around someone who smokes on a regular basis and inhaling their secondhand smoke can also cause cancer.
When you inhale cigarette smoke, the carcinogens cause changes in the tissues and cells in the lungs. Over time, these changes damage the genetic material of the cells in the lungs and cause cancer to develop. A healthy lung and one damaged by smoking look very different. A lung damaged by smoking is blackened over time, and its shape becomes irregular and hardened.
There are few, if any, symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer. As it progresses, you may have a cough that doesn’t go away. This cough can be dry or produce sputum.
Many people in the later stages of lung cancer have breathing problems, including shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest pain. Other signs of lung cancer include coughing up blood, a sore throat, or unexplained weight loss. You may also experience nail clubbing. This happens when your fingers and toes aren't getting enough oxygen. Talk to your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.