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Home Science Diseases & Conditions Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is cancer that begins in the lungs. It may spread to lymph nodes or other organs in the body, such as the brain.1 Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in men and women the U.S. Cigarette smoking causes most lung cancers,2 but up to 20% of people who die from lung cancer in the US have never smoked or used tobacco products.3

  • Lung cancer is cancer that begins in the lungs.1 Lung cancer includes two main types: small cell and non-small cell. These types of lung cancer grow differently and are treated differently.4 

    Small cell lung cancer (SCLC). This type accounts for 15% of all lung cancers and is more aggressive than non-small cell lung cancer.1

    Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). This type accounts for 80-85% of lung cancer cases. There are 3 major subtypes of NSCLC: adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma. These subtypes, which start from different types of lung cells are grouped together as NSCLC because their treatment and prognoses (outlook) are often similar.1

  • The exact cause for lung cancer is not known.5 However, several risk factors are known to increase your chances of developing lung cancer. These risk factors include:6

    • Tobacco smoking. About 80% of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking. The risk for developing lung cancer increases the longer and the more packs per day a person smokes. Cigar smoking and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause lung cancer as cigarette smoking. Note that lung cancer can occur even in people who have never smoked.
    • Secondhand smoke. More than 7,000 people die each year from lung cancer due to secondhand smoke.
    • Exposure to radon, asbestos, air pollution, and cancer-causing agents in the workplace.
    • Radiation therapy to the lungs for other cancers.
    • Personal or family history of lung cancer. If you have had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing another lung cancer. Brothers, sisters, and children of people who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger age.
  • Each person may have different signs and symptoms. Most people may not even have any symptoms until their lung cancer is very advanced or their tumor has grown.7

    Lung cancer symptoms may include:7

    • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse, with or without blood.
    • Chest pain.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Wheezing.
    • Repeatedly having pneumonia or bronchitis.
    • Feeling tired more than normal.
    • Weight loss for no reason.
    • Loss of appetite.
  • If your healthcare provider suspects you might have lung cancer, he or she may perform a physical exam and order certain tests. These tests may include:8

    • Chest x-ray. This is often the first test your healthcare provider will do.
    • CT scan. This scan rotates around your body and takes pictures. CT scans are more likely to show lung tumors than a chest x-ray.
    • Sputum cytology. This test studies your mucus that you cough up (sputum) under a microscope in search of cancer cells.
    • PET scan. This exam scans your brain and other parts of the body to see if the cancer spread.

    Only a biopsy can confirm a lung cancer diagnosis. A biopsy is done by taking a small tissue sample from the lungs and studying it under a microscope to see if it has cancer cells.8

    Once a diagnosis is made, other tests are run to find out if and how far the cancer has spread through the lungs, lymph nodes, and the rest of the body. This process is called staging. The stage of the cancer describes the size of the cancer, where it is and, whether it has spread. Knowing the type and stage of lung cancer helps your healthcare provider determine which treatments to use.9

  • Lung cancer is treated in several ways, depending on the type of lung cancer, cancer size, how far it has spread, and which biomarkers may be found during biomarker testing. Biomarkers tell you what is inside the lung cancer cells that might be driving the tumor’s growth. Once those factors are determined, your healthcare provider can understand more about the tumor and recommend which therapies might work the best for you.9,10

    Tumors in the lung may be treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or combinations of these approaches.9

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