What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer is caused by genetic mutations that allow cells to grow uncontrollably, leading to masses of abnormal tissue known as tumors.
Two main types of lung cancer exist: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). If left untreated, both can prove fatal.
There are several factors that may increase your risk for lung cancer, including smoking, family history, age and a history of certain illnesses. You can reduce these risks by making lifestyle changes and taking preventive measures.
Smoking: People who smoke cigarettes have an increased risk for lung cancer compared to non-smokers. Cigarette smoke causes two major issues for the lungs: It damages cells within them, increasing their vulnerability over time to cancer. Smoking also raises one’s blood pressure considerably.
Secondhand Smoke: Exposing to secondhand smoke can increase your risk for lung cancer. Secondhand smoke is caused by people smoking nearby and it’s found in many places such as cars, restaurants, and bars. Estimates suggest that more than 3000 lung cancer deaths occur annually from exposure to secondhand smoke.
Previous Radiation Therapy: Receiving radiation therapy to the chest for treating a prior diagnosis of Hodgkin disease, breast cancer or lung tumor may increase your risk for lung cancer – particularly among men and women who have smoked.
Military Service: Military personnel are at greater risk for developing lung cancer than the general population due to their service in the military, which includes smokers as well as active duty military members who often encounter agents that increase their lung cancer risks.
Other substances which may increase the risk of lung cancer include asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust and chromium and nickel. If these elements are present in some workplaces, they could pose an increased threat if you work with them.
Family History: Having a close relative with lung cancer is one of the greatest risks for developing the disease. Having either a parent or sibling diagnosed before age 50 increases one’s likelihood significantly.
Other risk factors for lung cancer include living in areas with high levels of air pollution, such as those near heavily traveled roads. While these environmental exposures can also cause lung cancer, they tend to be much less serious than smoking-related risks.
When lung cancer develops, you may experience various symptoms depending on the type and stage. These could include shortness of breath, wheezing or difficulty breathing.
Your doctor will examine your lungs and conduct a physical exam, listening for any changes in how you feel. This helps them pinpoint the source of your symptoms and detect if lung cancer is present.
If lung cancer is suspected, additional tests may be required to confirm the diagnosis. These could include a blood test, X-ray or CT scan as well as a biopsy of the tumor.
Many lung cancers originate in the airways and small sacs (alveoli) inside of the lungs. They may spread to lymph nodes within the lungs or other parts of your body such as bones or brain.
Lung cancers may produce hormones that travel through your bloodstream and affect other parts of the body, leading to conditions known as paraneoplastic syndromes such as SIADH, Cushing Syndrome and Lambert-Eaton Syndrome.
Horner syndrome and superior vena cava syndrome are two other common symptoms. The first causes pain in your arm and shoulder blades, while the latter produces numbness or tingling sensations throughout your arms and hands.
These symptoms may be especially prevalent if the cancer is located in your upper right lung, placing pressure on your superior vena cava – a large vein that transports blood from your head and arms back to your heart. The pressure can cause headaches as well as blood backup in this vein (known as superior vena cava syndrome).
Another common symptom of lung cancer is fatigue and weakness. This can occur because cancer takes away many essential nutrients needed for survival, making it difficult to perform tasks that used to come naturally like climbing stairs, going to the bathroom or performing other household chores.
Some people with lung cancer also develop high levels of calcium in their blood, known as hypercalcemia. This condition can cause digestive issues like tummy aches and constipation, as well as extreme thirst and frequent urination. If you have hypercalcemia, your doctor can provide medication to manage it.
Diagnosing lung cancer can be done through a medical history, physical exam and blood tests. Your healthcare provider may also inquire about your symptoms, family history and risk factors for the condition before referring you to a specialist for further examination and testing.
A biopsy, or sample of tissue, will be taken to detect cancer cells. These samples are sent to a pathologist who will examine them and provide you with an accurate diagnosis.
Once it is determined that you have lung cancer, your doctor will work together with you to decide the most suitable treatment options based on both the type and stage (extent) of the disease. Based on what type of tumor it is and its stage, they can decide what kind of recovery timetable best suits you.
Your treatment options for lung cancer depend on the stage. Surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may all be viable depending on the stage. Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells; it can be administered intravenously (by vein) or orally. Radiation therapy is another common option in treating certain types of lung cancer that often takes the place of chemotherapy.
Early stages of lung cancer often go undetected, but as the tumor progresses and interferes with normal lung function it may cause symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing up blood.
Once a lung cancer has been identified, imaging tests such as x-rays and scans can be taken to determine if it has spread elsewhere in your body. Furthermore, these examinations give doctors insight into how well your lungs are working.
Your doctor can use a chest X-ray to pinpoint the location of where the cancer began, followed by a CT scan to check if it has spread elsewhere in your body. If they’re uncertain where it started, your healthcare provider may perform a thoracentesis–a procedure in which fluid is extracted from between layers of your chest wall and lungs–to remove any fluid accumulation.
Your doctor can perform a sputum cytology test to examine the clear fluid you exhale from your lungs. With a microscope, it may be possible to spot cancer cells in this fluid.