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Home > Health Library > Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in the lungs. These cells can invade nearby tissues and form tumors. Lung cancer can start anywhere in the lungs and affect any part of the respiratory system.
The main types of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). NSCLC is the most common type. SCLC usually grows quickly and is more likely to spread than NSCLC.
Most lung cancer is caused by smoking. But sometimes lung cancer develops in people who have never smoked. A few people get lung cancer after being exposed to other harmful substances. Cancer may also be caused by gene changes that happen as you get older.
The first signs of lung cancer may include a new cough or a cough that doesn't go away, wheezing, or feeling short of breath. Other signs may include chest pain and blood in mucus that is coughed up.
Your symptoms, your medical history, and any history of cancer in your family will help your doctor decide how likely it is that you have lung cancer. You may need tests to be sure. Lung cancer is usually first found on a chest X-ray or a CT scan.
Treatment for lung cancer is based on the type and stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. The main treatments are surgery to remove the cancer, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. There are also other options, such as immunotherapy or targeted therapy. A clinical trial may be a good choice.
Some lung cancers can't be prevented. But if you smoke, quitting smoking is the best step you can take to prevent lung cancer. If you want to quit, your doctor can recommend medicines or other ways to help.
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Lung cancer is often caused by cigarette smoking. Tobacco smoke contains carcinogens. These are substances that cause cancer. They damage lung cells, and over time the damaged cells can turn into lung cancer.
Sometimes lung cancer develops in people who have never smoked. A few people get lung cancer after being exposed to other harmful substances, including asbestos, radioactive dust, radon, or radiation such as X-rays. Cancer also may be caused by gene changes (mutations) that occur as you get older.
Most lung cancers are caused by cigarette smoking. Smoking cigars or a pipe also put you at risk.
Your risk of getting lung cancer is higher:
Quitting smoking lowers your risk. And your risk keeps going down as long as you don't smoke. Cutting down may help.
If you live with a smoker, you are at more risk than a person who doesn't.
Being exposed to certain chemicals like arsenic or asbestos puts you at risk. Exposure to radiation, radon gas, or air pollution also puts you at risk.
Some gene changes can increase your risk.
Smoking, exposure to cancer-causing substances, and gene changes are risk factors. Having one or more risk factors can make it more likely that you will get lung cancer. But some people who get lung cancer don't have any of these risk factors.
Most lung cancers are caused by smoking. If you use tobacco, you can help lower your risk for lung cancer by quitting.
You may be able to make other changes in your life that can help lower your risk.
Symptoms of lung cancer may include:
If lung cancer spreads, there may be other symptoms. For example, if it spreads to the spine or bones, it may cause pain in the back or other bones or cause weakness in the arms or legs. If it spreads to the brain, it may cause seizures, headaches, or vision changes.
Lung cancer can start anywhere in the lungs and may affect any part of the respiratory system. This can cause breathing or heart problems, such as:
As lung cancer grows, it may spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Lung cancer is classified in stages, which describe how far the cancer has grown and spread.
The long-term outcome (prognosis) for lung cancer depends on how much the cancer has grown and spread.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you:
Call your doctor now if you have:
Call your doctor to find out if you should be seen if you:
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions about calling when you have problems, new symptoms, or symptoms that get worse.
Your doctor will first do a physical exam and ask about your medical history to find out your risk for lung cancer and look for any lung problems. The exam may include a chest X-ray and blood test.
If your exam suggests that you may have lung cancer, your doctor may recommend other tests, such as:
Screening tests help your doctor look for a problem before you have symptoms. This increases your chances of finding the problem early, when it's more treatable. Screening won't prevent cancer. And it may not find all lung cancers.
Lung cancer screening is only recommended for people age 50 and older who are or were heavy smokers. That means people who have a smoking history of at least 20 pack years. A pack year is a way to measure how much you have smoked.
Lung cancer screening is done with a low-dose CT scan. A CT scan uses X-rays, or radiation, to make detailed pictures of your body. Experts recommend that screening be done in medical centers that focus on finding and treating lung cancer.
Treatment for lung cancer is based on the type and stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the main treatments for both non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Other treatments that may be used for both types include immunotherapy, laser therapy, and endoscopic stent placement. NSCLC may also be treated with thermal ablation, photodynamic therapy, or targeted therapy.
Your doctor may suggest a clinical trial.
Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.
Some people use complementary therapies along with medical treatment. Therapies like acupuncture or massage may help you cope with the symptoms and stress of cancer. Talk with your doctor about any of these options you would like to try.
Surgery may be an option if your doctor thinks all of the cancer can be removed. Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed to find out if the cancer has spread.
To remove the cancer, the doctor may take out:
Lung surgery may be done through one cut (incision) in the chest (thoracotomy). Or it may be done through several small cuts, using a tiny camera and special tools. (This is called video-assisted thoracic surgery, or VATS.) Your doctor can help you understand which type of surgery is best for you.
This uses high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy is often used with surgery or chemotherapy to treat lung cancer. It may be used alone if surgery can't be done.
Radiation therapy may also be used to:
Radiation therapy for lung cancer is usually given by a machine outside the body (external radiation). In some cases, it's given by placing substances inside the body (internal radiation, or brachytherapy).
These medicines kill fast-growing cells, including cancer cells and some normal cells. They may be given before or after surgery to help destroy any remaining cancer cells. Chemotherapy and radiation may be given together. (This is called chemoradiation.)
These medicines are often put into a vein. Sometimes they are taken as a pill. The medicines travel through your body to kill cancer cells both inside and outside the lung area.
Other treatment options for both NSCLC and SCLC include:
This treatment helps your immune system fight cancer. It may be given along with chemotherapy.
This uses a highly focused beam of light to destroy cancer cells.
If a tumor blocks your airway, the doctor can insert a small hollow tube (stent) to help you breathe more easily.
A special light activates a medicine to destroy cancer cells. The doctor can use a bronchoscope to treat tumors in the airways.
NSCLC may also be treated with:
This uses extreme cold or heat to destroy cancer cells. Cryotherapy (or cryosurgery) is a type of ablation that uses cold. Radiofrequency ablation uses heat.
These medicines attack only cancer cells, not normal cells. They help keep cancer from growing or spreading.
Some of these medicines target certain tumor markers in the cancer cells. If the cancer has a tumor marker that can be targeted, you may be given one or more of these medicines.
Treatment for metastatic lung cancer is based on many things. These include the type and location of the cancer, your overall health, and what matters to you. The main treatments are targeted therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Other treatments, such as radiation therapy, may help relieve symptoms. A clinical trial may be a good choice.
Palliative care is a type of care for people who have a serious illness. It's different from care to cure your illness, called curative treatment. Palliative care provides an extra layer of support that can improve your quality of life—not just in your body, but also in your mind and spirit. Sometimes palliative care is combined with curative treatment.
The kind of care you get depends on what you need. Your goals guide your care. You can get both palliative care and care to treat your illness. You don't have to choose one or the other.
Palliative care can help you manage symptoms, pain, or side effects from treatment. It may help you and those close to you better understand your illness, talk more openly about your feelings, or decide what treatment you want or don't want. It can also help you communicate better with your doctors, nurses, family, and friends.
It can be hard to live with an illness that cannot be cured. But if your health is getting worse, you may want to make decisions about end-of-life care. Planning for the end of your life does not mean that you are giving up. It is a way to make sure that your wishes are met. Clearly stating your wishes can make it easier for your loved ones. Making plans while you are still able may also ease your mind and make your final days less stressful and more meaningful.
Some people use complementary therapies along with medical treatment. They may help relieve the symptoms and stress of cancer or the side effects of cancer treatment. Therapies that may be helpful include:
Talk with your doctor about any of these options you would like to try. And let your doctor know if you are already using any complementary therapies. They are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment. But they may help you feel better and cope better with treatment.
Relationships take on new importance when you're faced with cancer. Your family and friends can help support you. You may also want to look beyond those who are close to you.
Remember that the people around you want to support you, and asking for help isn't a sign of weakness.
Your friends and family want to help, but some of them may not know what to do. It may help to make a list. For example, you might ask them to:
Places to turn for support include:
Current as of:
September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineMichael Seth Rabin MD - Medical Oncology
Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Michael Seth Rabin MD - Medical Oncology
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