Lung Cancer

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Overview

Cancer starts when cells change (mutate) and grow out of control. The changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can spread to other parts of the body, too. This is called metastasis.

Lung cancer is cancer that starts in the cells that make up the lungs. The lungs are sponge-like organs in your chest. Their job is to bring oxygen into the body and to get rid of carbon dioxide. When you breathe air in, it goes into your lungs through your windpipe (trachea).

Lung cancer is divided into 2 main types:

Non-small cell lung cancer. Most lung cancers are non-small cell. They're named for how cancer cells look under a microscope. There are a few different types, such as squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma.

Small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer is less common than non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell cancer is sometimes called oat cell cancer. This is because the cancer cells are shaped like oats when looked at under a microscope. This type of lung cancer may grow and spread faster than non-small cell cancer.


Symptoms

A cough that does not go away or gets worse.

Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)

Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing.

Hoarseness.

Loss of appetite.

Unexplained weight loss.

Shortness of breath.

Feeling tired or weak.

Causes

Smoking causes the majority of lung cancers — both in smokers and in people exposed to secondhand smoke. But lung cancer also occurs in people who never smoked and in those who never had prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke. In these cases, there may be no clear cause of lung cancer.

How smoking causes lung cancer

Doctors believe smoking causes lung cancer by damaging the cells that line the lungs. When you inhale cigarette smoke, which is full of cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), changes in the lung tissue begin almost immediately.

At first your body may be able to repair this damage. But with each repeated exposure, normal cells that line your lungs are increasingly damaged. Over time, the damage causes cells to act abnormally and eventually cancer may develop.

Types of lung cancer

Doctors divide lung cancer into two major types based on the appearance of lung cancer cells under the microscope. Your doctor makes treatment decisions based on which major type of lung cancer you have.

The two general types of lung cancer include:

Small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer occurs almost exclusively in heavy smokers and is less common than non-small cell lung cancer.

Non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is an umbrella term for several types of lung cancers. Non-small cell lung cancers include squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.


Risk factors

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change.

The risk factors for lung cancer include:

Smoking

Exposure to secondhand smoke

Exposure to radon

Exposure to asbestos and other chemicals, such as arsenic and coal products

Air pollution

Radiation therapy to the chest

Personal history of lung cancer

Family history of lung cancer

HIV infection

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Complications

Lung cancer can cause complications, such as:

Shortness of breath. People with lung cancer can experience shortness of breath if cancer grows to block the major airways. Lung cancer can also cause fluid to accumulate around the lungs, making it harder for the affected lung to expand fully when you inhale.

Coughing up blood. Lung cancer can cause bleeding in the airway, which can cause you to cough up blood (hemoptysis). Sometimes bleeding can become severe. Treatments are available to control bleeding.

Pain. Advanced lung cancer that spreads to the lining of a lung or to another area of the body, such as a bone, can cause pain. Tell your doctor if you experience pain, as many treatments are available to control pain.

Fluid in the chest (pleural effusion). Lung cancer can cause fluid to accumulate in the space that surrounds the affected lung in the chest cavity (pleural space).

Fluid accumulating in the chest can cause shortness of breath. Treatments are available to drain the fluid from your chest and reduce the risk that pleural effusion will occur again.

Cancer that spreads to other parts of the body (metastasis). Lung cancer often spreads (metastasizes) to other parts of the body, such as the brain and the bones.

Cancer that spreads can cause pain, nausea, headaches, or other signs and symptoms depending on what organ is affected. Once lung cancer has spread beyond the lungs, it's generally not curable. Treatments are available to decrease signs and symptoms and to help you live longer.


Prevention

There's no sure way to prevent lung cancer, but you can reduce your risk if you:

Don't smoke. If you've never smoked, don't start. Talk to your children about not smoking so that they can understand how to avoid this major risk factor for lung cancer. Begin conversations about the dangers of smoking with your children early so that they know how to react to peer pressure.

Stop smoking. Stop smoking now. Quitting reduces your risk of lung cancer, even if you've smoked for years. Talk to your doctor about strategies and stop-smoking aids that can help you quit. Options include nicotine replacement products, medications and support groups.

Avoid secondhand smoke. If you live or work with a smoker, urge him or her to quit. At the very least, ask him or her to smoke outside. Avoid areas where people smoke, such as bars and restaurants, and seek out smoke-free options.

Test your home for radon. Have the radon levels in your home checked, especially if you live in an area where radon is known to be a problem. High radon levels can be remedied to make your home safer. For information on radon testing, contact your local department of public health or a local chapter of the American Lung Association.

Avoid carcinogens at work. Take precautions to protect yourself from exposure to toxic chemicals at work. Follow your employer's precautions. For instance, if you're given a face mask for protection, always wear it. Ask your doctor what more you can do to protect yourself at work. Your risk of lung damage from workplace carcinogens increases if you smoke.

Eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables. Choose a healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Food sources of vitamins and nutrients are best. Avoid taking large doses of vitamins in pill form, as they may be harmful. For instance, researchers hoping to reduce the risk of lung cancer in heavy smokers gave them beta carotene supplements. Results showed the supplements actually increased the risk of cancer in smokers.

Exercise most days of the week. If you don't exercise regularly, start out slowly. Try to exercise most days of the week.