How to Recognize and Treat Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer for both men and women and the number one cause of cancer deaths. Although this condition is commonly linked to smoking, lung cancer can also occur in non-smokers. Learning how to identify potential symptoms and asking your doctor about screenings could help you stay safe and catch lung cancer in its early stages.

Who gets lung cancer?

In 2022, experts estimate that more than 236,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer. Around the world, 2.3 million people developed this cancer in 2020. About one in 15 men and one in 17 women will have lung cancer at some point over the course of their lifetimes.

However, lung cancer is more likely to affect certain groups of people. More than 70% of people diagnosed with lung cancer are at least 65 years old. Additionally, Black adults have the highest rates of developing this condition, while American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, and Pacific Islander adults have the lowest rates.

Lung cancer causes and risk factors

Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer — four out of five deaths due to lung cancer are linked to cigarettes. People who don’t smoke themselves but who are exposed to secondhand smoke also have a higher risk of being diagnosed with this disease. Cigarette smoke can damage the genes within the cells of your lungs, causing them to develop mutations that make them grow out of control and form a tumor.

Other factors can also increase your chances of developing lung cancer, including:

  • Exposure to chemicals such as asbestos, arsenic, silica, vinyl chloride, coal, soot, tar, diesel exhaust, or radioactive substances.
  • High levels of radon in your home or workplace.
  • Previous radiation treatments.
  • Large amounts of air pollution.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
  • Having family members who have been diagnosed with lung cancer.
  • Taking vitamins or supplements that contain beta carotene (this is only a risk factor for people who smoke).

Lung cancer symptoms

If you think that you may be at risk for lung cancer, you may want to watch out for signs like:

  • Frequent coughing that never gets better.
  • Chest pain, which may get worse if you cough, laugh, or try to breathe deeply.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing.
  • Swallowing difficulties.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Tiredness or weakness.
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss.
  • A hoarse voice.

To look for additional signs of lung cancer, your doctor may want to run diagnostic tests. Imaging tests such as an X-ray or CT scan can help doctors see inside your lungs and identify any possible tumors. Blood tests or tests of the mucus in your airways can also provide information about your lung health.

Types of lung cancer

There are two main types of lung cancer. The most common type, non-small cell lung cancer or NSCLC, tends to grow more slowly. It is divided into multiple subtypes, depending on which types of lung cells are affected: adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma. The other main type of lung cancer is small cell lung cancer or SCLC, which is nearly always caused by smoking.

How is lung cancer treated?

The NSCLC or SCLC treatment that your doctor recommends is based on your type of lung cancer, whether cancer has spread, the symptoms that you are experiencing, and what types of gene mutations are found within your lung cancer cells. Treatments may include:

  • Surgery — Doctors may remove a small piece of lung tissue, a lung lobe (section), or an entire lung, depending on how big the tumor is. Some nearby tissue may also be removed to see whether it contains any cancer cells. Many people with lung cancer will have their tumor surgically removed, although some people may not be healthy enough to go through surgery.
  • Chemotherapy — Cancer-killing drugs may be used before surgery to shrink the size of the tumor, or after surgery in order to destroy any cancer cells that were left behind. These medications can also kill cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body.
  • Targeted therapy — These drugs, which can specifically recognize and block cancer cells, may be given along with chemotherapy for NSCLC. The targeted therapy medications you use may depend on which genetic mutations caused your cancer.
  • Immunotherapy — Medications that boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells are known as immunotherapy. These drugs may be given alone or along with chemotherapy to fight NSCLC as well as SCLC that has started to spread.
  • Radiation therapy — This treatment uses high-energy X-rays to target cancer. People with NSCLC or SCLC may use radiation treatments before or after surgery. If lung cancer has already spread to distant locations, radiation therapy may not be helpful in eliminating the tumor. However, it may still be used to help treat certain symptoms.
  • Other treatments — Experts have developed other tools to kill specific areas of cancer, such as laser therapy (treatments using lasers), cryosurgery (a procedure in which extreme cold is used to kill tissue), electrocautery (a treatment that uses large amounts of heat to destroy cells), or phototherapy (a process in which a combination of drugs and light is used to fight cancer).

How well do lung cancer treatments work?

Lung cancer survival rates can depend on things like your age and overall health as well as your cancer type. Your outlook is primarily based on how far the cancer has spread:

  • When the tumor hasn’t spread outside of the lung, 64% of people with NSCLC and 29% with SCLC are expected to survive at least five years.
  • When cancer has spread to other tissues near the lung, about 37% of people with NSCLC and 18% of those with SCLC will live five years or more.
  • When cancer has spread to further areas of the body, about 8% of people with NSCLC and 3% of those with SCLC will live at least five years.

Finding lung cancer early gives you a better chance at a good outcome. Experts recommend that people with a history of smoking undergo a simple screening test once per year once they turn 50. If you previously or currently smoke cigarettes, ask your doctor whether screening for lung cancer may be a good idea.

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