Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. Your lungs are two spongy organs in your chest that take in oxygen when you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, among both men and women. Lung cancer claims more lives each year than colon, prostate, ovarian, lymph and breast cancers combined.
People who smoke have the greatest risk of lung cancer. The risk of lung cancer increases with the length of time and number of cigarettes smoked. If you quit smoking, even after smoking for many years, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing lung cancer.
Lung cancer typically doesn't cause signs and symptoms in its earliest stages. Signs and symptoms of lung cancer typically occur only when the disease is advanced.
Signs and symptoms of lung cancer may include:
When to see a doctor
If you smoke and want to stop in order to reduce your risk of lung cancer, make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can recommend strategies for quitting, such as counseling, medications and nicotine replacement products.
Smoking causes the majority of lung cancers — both in smokers and in people exposed to secondhand smoke. But lung cancer also occurs in people who never smoked and in those who never had prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke. In these cases, there may be no clear cause of lung cancer. Doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk.
How smoking causes lung cancer
Types of lung cancer
Airways and air sacs of the lungs
Your bronchioles are some of the smallest airways in your lungs. Inhaled air passes through tiny ducts from the bronchioles into elastic air sacs (alveoli). The alveoli are surrounded by the alveolar-...
A number of factors may increase your risk of lung cancer. Some risk factors can be controlled, for instance, by quitting smoking. And other factors can't be controlled, such as your sex. Risk factors for lung cancer include:
Lung cancer can cause complications, such as:
Preparing for your appointment
If you have signs and symptoms that worry you, start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. If your doctor suspects you may have lung cancer, you'll likely be referred to a specialist. Specialists who treat people with lung cancer can include:
What you can do
Questions to ask if you've been diagnosed with lung cancer
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
Tests and diagnosis
Testing healthy people for lung cancer
Screening for lung cancer is controversial among doctors. Studies are ongoing to determine what types of tests may be helpful and who would benefit from lung cancer screening. In the meantime, talk with your doctor if you're concerned about your risk of lung cancer. Together you can determine strategies to reduce your risk and decide whether screening tests are appropriate for you.
Tests to diagnose lung cancer
Lung cancer staging
Staging tests may include imaging procedures that allow your doctor to look for evidence that cancer has spread beyond your lungs. These tests include CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and bone scans. Not every test is appropriate for every person, so talk with your doctor about which procedures are appropriate for you.
Stages of non-small cell lung cancer
Stages of small cell lung cancer
Bronchoscopy is a procedure to see inside your lungs. During bronchoscopy, you receive a medicine to numb your throat and a lighted tube (bronchoscope) is inserted in your mouth. The tube is moved ...
Treatments and drugs
You and your doctor choose a cancer treatment regimen based on a number of factors, such as your overall health, the type and stage of your cancer, and your preferences. Options typically include one or more treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or targeted drug therapy.
In some cases you may choose not to undergo treatment. For instance, you may feel that the side effects of treatment will outweigh the potential benefits. When that's the case, your doctor may suggest comfort care to treat only the symptoms the cancer is causing, such as pain.
If you undergo surgery, your surgeon may also remove lymph nodes from your chest in order to check them for signs of cancer.
Lung cancer surgery carries risks, including bleeding and infection. Expect to feel short of breath after lung surgery. Your lung tissue will expand over time and make it easier to breathe. Your doctor may recommend a respiratory therapist who can guide you through breathing exercises to aid in your recovery.
Chemotherapy can be used as a first line treatment for lung cancer or as additional treatment after surgery. In some cases, chemotherapy can be used to lessen side effects of your cancer.
Radiation therapy can be used alone or with other lung cancer treatments. Sometimes it's administered at the same time as chemotherapy.
Targeted drug therapy
Lung cancer surgery
Lung cancer surgery can involve removing a portion of the lung or the entire lung. An operation to remove the lung cancer and a small portion of healthy tissue is called a wedge resection. Removing a ...
Lifestyle and home remedies
Coping with shortness of breath
Tell your doctor if you experience shortness of breath or if your symptoms worsen.
If your doctor has told you that your lung cancer can't be cured, you may be tempted to turn to complementary and alternative medicine for answers. Complementary and alternative lung cancer treatments can't cure your cancer. But complementary and alternative treatments can often be combined with your doctor's care to help relieve signs and symptoms you may experience. Your doctor can help you weigh the benefits and risks of complementary and alternative treatments.
The American College of Chest Physicians reviewed available complementary and alternative treatments and found some therapies may be helpful for people with lung cancer, including:
Coping and support
A diagnosis of lung cancer is devastating. It may take some time to come to terms with your feelings. When you're ready, you can take steps to take control of your situation. Taking an active role in your health care may make you feel more empowered in coping with lung cancer. Try to:
There's no sure way to prevent lung cancer, but you can reduce your risk if you:
Last Updated: 2009-11-10
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