According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women; in fact it kills more people than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.
Lung cancer is especially deadly because it can easily spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, brain, or liver. ACS reports that only about 16 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed before the cancer has spread to lymph nodes and other organs.
The most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of lung cancer is to avoid smoking and being around other people's smoke. Even people who have smoked heavily for many years can significantly reduce their risk of lung cancer by quitting smoking.
Avoid radon and asbestos by paying attention to warnings in your buildings and worksites and by following the safety rules that are in place where you work. If you are exposed to asbestos at work, wear protective equipment. If you would like to test your home for radon, you can purchase a home radon test kit, available at most hardware stores.
Lung cancer can be caused by:
- Cigarette smoking accounts for 85 to 90 percent of all primary lung cancers. Harmful substances in tobacco, called carcinogens and radioactive agents (polonium 210 and lead 210), damage the cells in the lungs. Over time the damaged cells may become cancerous. Your risk increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke each day, the number of years you have smoked, the earlier the age at which you started smoking, and the more deeply you inhale. Smoking low tar cigarettes does not decrease the risk of lung cancer.
- Secondhand smoke can also cause lung cancer. Daily exposure to a spouse’s smoke may increase the nonsmoking spouse’s chances of developing lung cancer by as much as 30 percent .
- Radon is an invisible, odorless, tasteless 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. In some parts of the country, radon is found in the basements of houses.
- Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that occur naturally as fibers and are used in certain industries, including shipbuilding, insulation, and brake repair. Asbestos fibers break easily into particles that can be inhaled and damage the lungs. Workers exposed to large amounts of asbestos have a higher risk of developing lung cancer than people who are not exposed to asbestos. The risk is even higher among asbestos workers who smoke. Other industrial carcinogens associated with lung cancer include silica, arsenic, chromium and nickel. Improved OSHA regulations regarding exposure to environmental and work-related carcinogens in the last decade have significantly reduced exposure to these cancer causing agents.
Other causes of lung cancer include cigar and pipe smoking, lung diseases such as tuberculosis, and possibly air pollution.
Because the lungs are so large, cancer can invade and grow in them for many years without being detected. Cancer can even spread outside the lungs without any noticeable symptoms.
The most common warning sign of lung cancer is a persistent cough. You may also have chest, back, or shoulder pain. Other symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- New onset of wheezing
- Repeated cases of pneumonia or bronchitis
- Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (phlem)
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
If a lung tumor is pressing on nerves, you may have pain and weakness in your arm, shoulder, and hand.
If you have symptoms of lung cancer, your doctor will evaluate your medical history and perform a physical exam. You may have a chest x-ray examination. To confirm the presence of lung cancer, a tissue sample must be taken from your lungs, called a biopsy. If the diagnosis is lung cancer, your doctor will do more tests to determine the stage of the cancer.
Treatment for lung cancer depends on the type of cancer (small cell or non-small cell); the size, location, and extent of the tumor; and the general health of the patient. There are several different kinds of treatment, which may be used alone or in combination:
Surgery to remove the tumor is the most common treatment for non-small cell lung cancer. Removal of a small section of the lung containing the tumor is called wedge resection.
When an entire lobe is removed (your right lung has three lobes and your left lung has two), the procedure is called a lobectomy. This is the most common type of lung cancer surgery. At Methodist University Hospital, we're using the da Vinci system to perform robotic lobectomies that require minimally invasive techniques. Sometimes a pneumonectomy, the removal of an entire lung, is required.
Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer medications to kill cancer cells throughout the body. This is the most common treatment for small cell lung cancer and can also be used to treat non-small cell cancers. Chemotherapy may be used to control cancer growth or to relieve symptoms. It is usually given by intravenous (IV) injection into a vein or through a thin tube placed into a vein (catheter). Some anticancer medications come in the form of a pill.
Radiation therapy kills cancer cells by exposing them to high doses of x-rays. It is directed to a limited area, and affects the cancer cells only in that area. Radiation therapy may be used before surgery to shrink a tumor or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. Doctors also use radiation therapy, often combined with chemotherapy, as the primary treatment instead of surgery. External beam therapy focuses radiation from a source outside the body on the cancer. Brachytherapy places small pellets of radioactive material into or near the cancer.