Kevin Lutz, MD, FACP
Oct 1 2020

The National Cancer Institute reports that tobacco smoking causes about 9 out of 10 cases of lung cancer in men and about 8 out of 10 cases of lung cancer in women.

CancerMen’s HealthScreeningWomen’s Health

Lung cancer is cancer that forms in tissues of the lung. When you breathe, air goes through your nose, down your windpipe (trachea), and into the lungs, where it flows through tubes called bronchi. Most lung cancer begins in the cells that line these tubes.

There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). These two types grow differently and are treated differently. Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common type. Lung cancer is the deadliest type of cancer for both men and women. Each year, more people die from lung cancer than of breast, colon, and prostate cancers combined.

Who is at risk for lung cancer?

Lung cancer is more common in adults over the age of 65. It is rare in people under age 45. There is also a genetic component that may predispose certain people to lung cancer. Individuals with an  immediate family member who has or had lung cancer (regardless of tobacco use) may be more prone to developing the disease.

Cigarette smoking is the most important risk factor for lung cancer and the leading cause of lung cancer.

The National Cancer Institute reports that tobacco smoking causes about 9 out of 10 cases of lung cancer in men and about 8 out of 10 cases of lung cancer in women. The earlier in life you start smoking, the longer you smoke, and the more cigarettes you smoke per day, the greater your risk of lung cancer. The risk does decrease with time after you stop smoking. There is no evidence that smoking low-tar cigarettes lowers the risk. Another important risk factor is secondhand smoke, which is the  combination of smoke that comes from a cigarette and smoke breathed out by a smoker. When you inhale it, you are exposed to the same cancer-causing agents as smokers, although in smaller amounts.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

Lung cancer symptoms vary for person to person. Sometimes people with lung cancer do not have any symptoms. Often, symptoms are easily confused with common respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia, making an accurate diagnosis more difficult. It may be found during a chest x-ray done for another condition. Symptoms of lung cancer may include:

  • A cough that does not go away and gets worse over time
  • Constant chest pain, often made worse by deep breathing, coughing or laughing
  • Blood in sputum
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness
  • Repeated episodes of pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Swelling of the neck and face. This occurs when the tumor compresses a large vein, the
  • superior vena cava, that moves blood to the heart from the head and arms.
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight loss
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Widening of the fingertips and nail bed also known as “clubbing”

If lung cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it may cause: bone pain, arm or leg weakness or numbness, headache, dizziness or seizure, balance problems or an unsteady gait, jaundice (yellow coloring) of skin and eyes, swollen lymph nodes in the neck or shoulder. These symptoms can also be due to other, less serious conditions.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Some patients at high risk for lung cancer, including those with a history of smoking, should undergo regular screenings in order to catch the disease at its early stages, when there is a better chance of cure.

If you have symptoms that suggest lung cancer, your doctor will ask you questions about your medical, smoking and family history and whether you have been around certain chemicals or substances. You may then undergo an imaging exam, typically CT scan. If the findings on the imaging scans are worrisome for cancer, the next step is to obtain a tissue or fluid sample called a biopsy.

How is lung cancer treated?

Lung cancer is treated in several ways, depending on the type of lung cancer and how far it has spread. People with non-small cell lung cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, cell-targeted therapy or a combination of these treatments. People with small cell lung cancer are usually treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

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