Lung Cancer: What You Should Know

Lung cancer occurs when cells divide in the lungs uncontrollably. This causes tumors to grow. These can reduce a person’s ability to breathe and spread to other parts of the body.

Lung cancer is the third most common type of cancer and the main cause of cancer-related death in the United States. It is most common in males, and in the U.S., black males are around 15% more likely to develop it than white males.

Smoking is a major risk factor, though not everyone who develops lung cancer has a history of smoking. Lung cancer can be fatal, but effective diagnoses and treatments are improving the outlook.

This article will explain what lung cancer is, how to recognize the symptoms, and the treatment options available.

What is lung cancer?

Cells that are ordinarily healthy undergo alterations as a result of cancer. The cells multiply far too quickly without dying.

Normal cells in the body die at a specific point in their life cycle, preventing an overabundance of cells. Cancer cells, on the other hand, continue to develop and reproduce. Tumors form as a result. 

Small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer are the two main forms of lung cancer, based on how they appear under a microscope. Compared to small cell lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer is more prevalent. 

Lung cancer can affect anyone, but smoking cigarettes and being exposed to smoke, inhaled chemicals, or other poisons might raise the risk.

Types

The main types of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. They differ in the size of the cell, as seen under a microscope.

Non-small cell lung cancer

Around 84% of lung cancer cases in the U.S. are non-small cells. There are three subtypes:

  • adenocarcinoma
  • squamous cell cancer
  • large cell carcinoma

Small cell lung cancer

Around 13% of lung cancer cases in the U.S. are small cells. This type tends to grow more quickly than non-small cell lung cancer.

Symptoms and signs

People with lung cancer may not have any symptoms until a later stage. If symptoms do appear, they can resemble those of a respiratory infection.

Some possible symptoms Trusted sources include:

  • changes in a person’s voice, such as hoarseness.
  • frequent chest infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
  • Swelling in the lymph nodes in the middle of the chest
  • a lingering cough that may start to get worse
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath and wheezing

In time, a person may also experience more severe symptoms, such as:

  • severe chest pain
  • bone pain and bone fractures
  • headaches
  • coughing up blood
  • blood clots
  • appetite loss and weight loss
  • fatigue

Stages

The staging of cancer describes how far it has spread through the body and how severe it is. Staging helps healthcare professionals and individuals decide on a suitable course of treatment.

The most basic form of staging is as follows:

  • localized, wherein the cancer is within a limited area
  • regional, wherein the cancer has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes
  • distant, wherein the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

Similar to this is the TNM staging (Trusted Source) system. Healthcare professionals assess the tumor for size and spread, whether or not it affects the lymph nodes, and whether or not it has spread elsewhere.

There are also specific ways of staging non-small cell and small cell lung cancer.

Stages of non-small cell lung cancer

Healthcare professionals typically use tumor size and spread to describe the stages of non-small cell lung cancer, as follows: Trusted Source:

  • Occult, or hidden: The cancer does not show up on imaging scans, but cancerous cells might appear in the phlegm or mucus.
  • Stage 0: There are abnormal cells only in the top layers of cells lining the airways.
  • Stage 1: A tumor is present in the lung, but it is 4 centimeters (cm) or under and has not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Stage 2: The tumor is 7 cm or under and might have spread to nearby tissues and lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes and reached other parts of the lung and surrounding area.
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to distant body parts, such as the bones or brain.

Stages of small-cell lung cancer

Small cell lung cancer is a distinct subtype of lung cancer. The phases are restricted and extensive, and they indicate whether cancer has spread inside or outside the lungs.

Cancer affects only one side of the chest in this stage, though it may already be present in some nearby lymph nodes.

Around a third of persons with this sort discover they have cancer when it is still in its early stages. Radiation therapy can be used to treat it as a single area by healthcare specialists.

Cancer has gone beyond one side of the chest at the advanced stage. It has the potential to impact the other lungs as well as other sections of the body.

Around two-thirds of people with small-cell lung cancer are unaware of their diagnosis until it is too late.

Survival rates

According to the American Cancer Society’s trusted source, the chances of surviving for 5 years or longer after receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer are as follows:

The percentages reflect the chances of a person surviving with lung cancer compared with the chances of a person surviving without lung cancer.

Screening

Undergoing regular screening may be a good idea for people with a high risk of developing lung cancer. Screening is with a low-dose CT scan.

The American Lung Association recommends screening if a person meets all of the following criteria:

  • is aged 55–80 years
  • has a history of heavy smoking (30 pack years, which is one pack per day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years)
  • currently smokes or has quit smoking within the past 15 years

Insurance will often cover this screening if a person is aged 55–80 years and has private health insurance or is aged 55–77 years, has Medicare and meets all the other criteria.

However, people should check with their insurance company before signing up for lung cancer screening.

Diagnosis

If a person has any symptoms that could indicate lung cancer or if screening shows something unusual, a healthcare professional will likely recommend some diagnostic tests. Trusted Source

Imaging tests

An X-ray, CT, MRI, or PET scan might reveal areas of lung tissue with cancer.

If cancer has spread, imaging tests can also reveal changes to bones and other organs. Scans can also help track the progress of treatment.

Tissue sampling

A healthcare professional may wish to take a biopsy to check for cancer cells. They will do this using a fine needle or a bronchoscope.

A bronchoscope is a thin, lighted scope with a camera on the end that enters the lungs through the mouth or nose. A healthcare professional can use it to look for lesions and take samples.

For less accessible lesions, they may use a more invasive surgical procedure, such as thoracoscopy or video-assisted thoracic surgery, to remove lung tissue.

Other samples

Laboratory tests can also reveal whether or not cancer is present in the:

  • pleural effusion, which is the fluid that collects around the lungs
  • sputum
  • blood

This information can help confirm if cancer is present and, if it is, determine its type and stage.

Treatment

Treatment Trusted Source will depend on various factors, including:

  • the type of cancer
  • the location and stage
  • the person’s overall health
  • their individual preferences

All the treatment options can have adverse effects. A person should speak with their healthcare professional about the most suitable choice for them, including the pros and cons of each option.

Some treatment options include:

  • Part or all of a lung is removed during surgery.
  • Chemotherapy is a chemical therapy that kills cancer cells while shrinking tumours.
  • The employment of high-energy beams to eliminate malignant cells is known as radiation therapy.
  • A healthcare expert inserts a tiny needle and utilises an electric current to eliminate cancer cells in radiofrequency ablation.
  • Targeted therapy prevents tumour growth by focusing on a specific behaviour.
  • Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps the body attack cancer cells.
  • Palliative care involves pain medication, oxygen therapy, and other services that may be required to manage a patient’s symptoms.

A healthcare professional will work with the individual and adjust their treatment plan as their needs change.

Outlook

Lung cancer can be fatal, but emerging treatments mean that many people now survive and recover from lung cancer, especially if they receive an early diagnosis.

Some factors affecting the likelihood of a positive outcome include:

  • a person’s overall health
  • their age
  • the stage of cancer at diagnosis
  • the type of cancer they have

It is not possible to predict exactly how cancer will affect an individual, but a healthcare professional can help a person understand what they may be able to expect by looking at the results of tests and other factors.

Summary

Lung cancer is a potentially fatal type of cancer, but people who receive an early diagnosis often have a good chance of survival.

People with a high risk of developing lung cancer may wish to consider undergoing regular screening. This can detect the early signs and allow for treatment before cancer spreads.

Anyone who has concerns about their risk of lung cancer should talk with their healthcare professional.

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