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Lung Cancer

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Jun 6, 2022.

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the lungs. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Cigarette smoking causes most lung cancer, but it can also develop in people who do not smoke.

The Lungs

What are the types of lung cancer?

The main differences between the 2 major types is the cells the cancer starts in and how it grows:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer. Adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma are the examples of NSCLC.
  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is less common and is sometimes called oat cell cancer. These types of cells are small and round and can be more aggressive than NSCLC.

What increases my risk for lung cancer?

  • Cigarette smoking, or breathing secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to radon gas
  • A family history of lung cancer
  • Radiation therapy to the chest
  • Working with asbestos or other chemicals that can cause cancer, such as arsenic, chromium, or nickel

What are the signs and symptoms of lung cancer?

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • A cough that will not go away, and gets worse over time
  • Coughing up blood
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss without trying
  • Headache

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you. You may need any of the following:

  • Blood tests measure oxygen and blood gas levels and show how well your body is working.
  • A sputum test may show cancer cells.
  • An x-ray, CT, or MRI may show the size and location of the cancer. You may be given contrast liquid to help your lungs show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • A bronchoscopy is a test to look inside your airway and lungs. Healthcare providers insert a bronchoscope (tube with a light and magnifying glass on the end) into your mouth and down into your lungs.
  • A biopsy is a sample of lung tissue usually collected during a bronchoscopy. The sample will be sent to a lab and checked for abnormal cells.
  • Genomic sequencing tests may show which cells are causing cancer. This can help your provider choose which medicine to give you.

How is lung cancer treated?

The most common treatments for lung cancer include the following:

  • Surgery may be needed to remove the lung cancer. Part of your lymph nodes may be removed to check for signs of cancer. Surgery may also be needed if the cancer cannot be removed completely. In this case surgery may help treat complications or decrease your symptoms.
  • Radiation therapy uses beams of intense energy, such as x-rays, to shrink or kill cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy medicines are used to kill cancer cells. Chemo may be given as a pill or in an IV. Chemo can be used by itself, before with or after surgery, and with radiation.
  • Targeted medicine therapy focuses on specific targets inside cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy stimulates your immune system to fight the cancer. Cancer cells produce substances that help them hide from your immune system. Immunotherapy can block these substances and help your body identify the cancer cells so they can be destroyed.

How can I lower my risk for lung cancer?

  • Do not smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Have lung cancer screening, if recommended. Lung cancer screening is a test done every year to find lung cancer early. Screening is different from diagnosis because screening is used before you have any signs or symptoms. Screening is offered to adults aged 50 to 80 who have at least a 20-pack year history of smoking. Pack-years are the number of cigarette packs you smoked multiplied by the number of years you smoked. Examples are 1 pack of cigarettes each day for 20 years, or 2 packs each day for 10 years. Lung cancer screening has benefits and risks. Talk with your healthcare provider about the benefits and risks to help you decide if lung cancer screening is right for you.
  • Have your home tested for radon. Do this especially if you live in an area where radon is a known problem.
  • Wear protective gear if you work with substances or chemicals that can cause cancer. Avoid exposure as much as you can. Follow safety precautions.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish.
    Healthy Foods
  • Be physically active throughout the day. Physical activity such as exercise can help increase your energy level and fight illness. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day, on most days of the week. Include aerobic activity, such as walking or riding a bicycle. Also include strength training at least 2 times each week. Your healthcare providers can help you create a physical activity plan.
    Hispanic Family Walking for Exercise
    Strength Training for Adults

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have severe chest pain when you take a deep breath or cough.
  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You cannot think clearly.
  • You cough up blood, or more blood than before.
  • Your lips or nails look blue or pale.

When should I call my doctor or oncologist?

  • You have a fever.
  • You are vomiting and cannot keep food or liquids down.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© Copyright IBM Corporation 2022 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or IBM Watson Health

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