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Lung Cancer - What is Lung Cancer?

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Lung Cancer


Updated August 08, 2010

Lung cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells develop in the tissue of the lungs. It is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and women and is also the leading cause of cancer death in Americans.

There are two main types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer accounts for about 20% of diagnoses and is most always caused by smoking. Don't let the name "small cell" fool you. While the cancer cells are small, they spread quickly and can develop into large masses. Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer, and there are several subtypes based on where in the lungs the cancer has developed and other factors.

Lung Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Smoking is the most significant risk factor for lung cancer, accounting for more than 80% of lung cancer diagnoses. Cigarettes aren't the only culprit; cigars and pipes are known causes of lung cancer as well.

Smokers aren't the only ones at risk for lung cancer. Nonsmokers increase their risk through other sources, such as secondhand smoke, which increases their risk of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30%. Other risk factors for lung cancer include:
  • exposure to asbestos
  • exposure to radon
  • exposure to radiation
  • family history of lung cancer

Lung Cancer Symptoms

  • persistent cough that does not go away with treatment
  • wheezing
  • coughing up blood or bloody phlegm
  • shortness of breath
  • recurring bronchitis or pneumonia
  • pain in the chest, shoulder or neck

Diagnosis of Lung Cancer

The lung cancer diagnostic process begins when symptoms are evaluated by a doctor. When people experience symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, a routine chest X-ray is often the first step in making a diagnosis, even if lung cancer is not initially suspected.

If a chest X-ray reveals an abnormality, more imaging tests, such as a CT scan, PET scan or MRI, may be done to further evaluate the lungs.

Lung cancer can truly only be confirmed by looking at a sample of tissue microscopically. Tissue samples can be obtained from phlegm (sputum cytology) or through a biopsy of the suspicious area.

Once a biopsy confirms cancer, the disease is staged. Staging refers to how far the disease has spread to nearby tissue or organs. The stage of the cancer greatly determines what treatment options are available.

Treatment of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer treatment varies greatly depending on stage, type of lung cancer, age and general health of the patient. The more advanced the lung cancer, the more limited the patient and physician are in treatment choices. Many times, people are treated with more than one method, such as surgery and radiation therapy.
Surgery is performed more often in cases of non-small cell lung cancer. It is also usually limited to early stages of lung cancer that has not spread beyond the lung. In cases of small cell lung cancer, surgery may be performed in conjunction with another treatment method, such as chemotherapy or radiation. Types of surgery used to treat lung cancer include
  • Wedge Resection: a small section of the lung is removed. The tumor is removed along with a small amount of healthy tissue surrounding it.

  • Lobectomy: a lobectomy is the surgical removal of a whole part of the lung.

  • Pneumonectomy: a pneumonectomy is the surgical removal of the entire lung.

  • Sleeve Resection: a removal of part of the bronchus.

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs that either kill cancer cells or prevent the cells from dividing. It can be given in a variety of ways, with IV infusion and pill being most common.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of certain types of energy to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It is often given in conjunction with chemotherapy to treat lung cancer.

Clinical Trials

Treatment clinical trials may be an option for some people with lung cancer. Clinical trials test new drugs or a combination of drugs and therapy to evaluate its effectiveness on a disease. They are often sought when current treatment is not working or in cases of advanced lung cancer that have a poor prognosis.

Prevention of Lung Cancer

By avoiding certain risk factors for lung cancer, we can reduce our chances of developing it. This is the first step in lung cancer prevention.

Quit Smoking or Don't Start. Smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. As soon as you quit (it's never too late!), your body reaps the benefits of being tobacco free. Quitting smoking is the best defense against lung cancer. Need help kicking the habit? Visit the About.com Smoking Cessation site.

Avoid Secondhand Smoke. Secondhand smoke is the smoke exhaled from a smoker or smoke from a lit cigarette, pipe or cigar. This smoke contains more than 60 known carcinogens (agents causing cancer). These carcinogens interrupt normal cell development. This interference of cell development is what starts the cancer process.

Test Your Home for Radon. Radon is the result of broken down uranium. It is a radioactive gas that cannot be seen, felt, smelled or tasted. Uranium occurs naturally in the soil, and the fear is that homes are being built over natural deposits, creating high levels of indoor radon exposure, which can lead to lung cancer.

Be Aware of Your Workplace Chemical Exposure. If you are exposed to fumes, dust and chemicals in the workplace, you have a right to know what you are being exposed to. Gasoline, diesel exhaust, arsenic, beryllium, vinyl chloride, nickel chromates, coal products, mustard gas and chloromethyl ethers are all carcinogens and can be found in some work environments. Talk to your employer about limiting your exposure.
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