In 2013, 228,190 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 may differ. Non-small cell lung cancer occurs in the airways of the lungs or the outer part of the lungs. It usually grows slower than small cell lung cancers. Small cell lung cancers are typically in the bronchi, but can spread quickly to the rest of the body.
In addition to the two types of cancers, tumors can also occur in the lungs. Called carcinoids, these tumors grow slower than other types of lung cancer. They 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.
These tumors don’t usually spread to other areas of the body. They are also not caused by smoking.
If your doctor thinks you have lung cancer, chances are you will have a chest X-ray to confirm the diagnosis. On a chest X-ray of someone with lung cancer, there is usually 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 all forms of cancer or smaller lesions.
A computed tomography (CT) scan is used to detect earlier forms of lung cancer. This scan takes a cross-sectional and a more detailed image of the lung. Lesions—small, abnormal areas in the lungs that might be cancerous—can be seen in a CT scan. Your provider can use this image to determine if these areas are cancerous.
According to a recent study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, routine CT scans can help detect and prevent lung cancer more than chest X-rays. Additionally, in July 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that people at high risk of lung cancer, especially older people with a long history of smoking, get annual low-dose CT scans.
Your physician may want to get a sample of abnormal or suspicious tissue from the lung to make the diagnosis of cancer. 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), making an incision, or by using a needle. This sample can then be analyzed 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 cells in the lungs and cause cancer to develop. A healthy lung and one harmed by smoking look very different. A lung damaged by smoking is blackened over time, and its shape becomes irregular.
One of the most frightening things about lung cancer is that there are few, if any, symptoms in the beginning. As lung cancer progresses, you may have a cough that doesn’t go away, or you might develop a smoker’s cough. Many people in the early 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. Be sure to talk to your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.