Cancer that begins in the lung is divided into two types: nonsmall cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Each type of lung cancer grows and spreads differently and is treated in different ways.
Nonsmall cell lung cancer is the most common type. It generally grows and spreads more slowly. There are three main types of nonsmall cell lung cancer. They are named for the type of cells in which the cancer develops: squamous cell carcinoma (also called epedermoid carcinoma), adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.
Small cell lung cancer, sometimes called "oat cell cancer," is less common. This type of lung cancer grows more quickly and is more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Research has discovered some causes of lung cancer. Most are related to the use of tobacco.
- Cigarettes: Smoking cigarettes can cause lung cancer. Harmful substances called carcinogens in tobacco damage cells in the lungs. The damaged cells may become cancerous over time.
- Cigars and Pipes: Cigar and pipe smokers have a risk of developing lung cancer. Cigar and pipe smokers who do not inhale are at increase risk for lung, mouth and other types of cancer.
- Environmental Tobacco Smoke: Developing lung cancer is increased by exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), the smoke in the air when someone else smokes. Exposure to ETS, also called secondhand smoke, is known as involuntary or passive smoking.
- Radon: Radon is an invisible, odorless and radioactive gas that occurs naturally in soil and rocks. It can cause damage to the lungs that may lead to lung cancer. People who work in mines may be exposed to radon and in some parts of the country radon is found in houses. A kit is available at most hardware stores to test for radon in the home.
- Asbestos: Asbestos is a group of mineral fibers used in certain industries. Asbestos fibers tend to break easily into particles that can float in the air and stick to clothes. When asbestos particles are inhaled, they can lodge in the lungs and damage cells, increasing the risk for lung cancer. Asbestos workers should use protective equipment and follow recommended work practices and safety precautions.
- Pollution: Research has shown a link between lung cancer and exposure to certain air pollutants such as by-products from the combustion of diesel and other fossil fuels. The relationship with lung cancer has not been clearly defined, and more research is being conducted.
- Lung Diseases: Certain lung diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) can increase the chance of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer tends to develop in scarred areas of the lung caused by TB.
- Personal History: Someone who has had lung cancer once could develop it a second time. Quitting smoking after lung cancer is diagnosed may play an important role in preventing the development of a second lung cancer.
Common signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:
- A cough that doesn't go away and gets worse over time
- Constant chest pain
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness
- Repeated problems with pneumonia or bronchitis
- Swelling of the neck and face
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
A physician will evaluate medical history, smoking history, exposure to substances and family history of cancer. The doctor may also perform a physical exam and order a chest X-ray and other tests. If lung cancer is suspected, sputum cytology (the microscopic examination of cells obtained from a deep-cough sample of mucus in the lungs) is a simple test that may be useful in detecting lung cancer. To confirm the presence of lung cancer, the doctor must examine lung tissue. A tissue biopsy can be examined under a microscope by a pathologist to determine whether a person has cancer. Several types of procedures may be used to obtain the tissue, including bronchoscopy, needle aspiration, thoracentesis and thoracotomy.
Treatment of lung cancer depends on a number of factors. The type of lung cancer, the size, location and extent of the tumor and overall health of the patient affect treatment options. Different types of treatment and combinations of treatment may be used to control lung cancer and/or to improve quality of life by reducing symptoms.
- Surgery: Surgery can be used to remove the cancer. The type of surgery a physician performs depends on the location of the tumor in the lung. The surgeon may remove an entire lobe of the lung, called a lobectomy. Pneumonectomy is the removal of an entire lung.
- Chemotherapy: The use of anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body is called chemotherapy.
- Radiation Therapy: Also called radiotherapy, radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is directed to a certain area and affects only the cancer cells.
- Photodynamic Therapy (PDT): PDT is a type of laser therapy involving the use of a special chemical that is injected into the bloodstream. After cells all over the body absorb the treatment, the chemical rapidly leaves normal cells but remains in cancerous cells for a longer time.
- Clinical trials: Clinical trials may be utilized to evaluate new ways to treat cancer.
For physician referral, call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355).