By now, most people realize that smoking is harmful to human health. Lung cancer is one of the more well-known health consequences of smoking due to its severity. In many cases, lung cancer is fatal, and death often comes quickly after diagnosis because many people don’t know the early signs of disease. Knowing the warning signs, and potential risk factors, can help detect or prevent lung cancer.
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer refers to the growth of abnormal cells within the lungs. These cells grow in an uncontrolled manner and overtake surrounding healthy tissue, leading to damage of the lungs. As cancer cells continue to multiply, they often cluster together and cause a mass or tumor. The presence of a tumor in the lungs, viewed during a CT scan, is often one indication that a patient may have lung cancer.
There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell cancers, and small cell cancers. These types affect different areas of the lungs and are treated medically in different ways. Once lung cancer is suspected, specialists will perform additional tests to determine which type of cancer is present, as well as any subtype. Cancer type depends on where in the lungs cancer cells begin growing, or the types of cells affected. For instance, squamous cell carcinoma begins in early squamous cells, which line the airways.
Most types of lung cancer are more common in smokers.
What are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer?
Some of the most common symptoms of lung cancer are a cough that doesn’t improve, hoarseness, chest pain, trouble breathing, and frequent lung infections. Other symptoms may include unexplained weight loss, bone pain, loss of appetite, and blood clots.
When you have lung cancer, generally you know that something is wrong. One of the most common symptoms is a new cough or else a cough that just won’t go away. Other signs can possibly include the following:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty swallowing
- Coughing up blood
- Swelling of the face or neck
- Frequent respiratory infections
Many of these symptoms are also common with other illnesses, so diagnosis is often delayed. In some cases, patients mistake a lingering cough for other illnesses, such as the common cold or bronchitis.
How is Lung Cancer Diagnosed?
There are several ways of diagnosing lung cancer. Patients who see their doctors with lung cancer symptoms, especially former or current smokers, may be given a CT-scan or PET scan to detect the presence of lesions or tumors within the lungs. Fluid from the lungs may be also be tested for cancerous cells through one of many methods. Sputum cytology is a test in which doctors study a patient’s spittle under a microscope. Ultrasounds are also increasingly popular diagnostic tools, as well as fine needle biopsy, in which a needled is inserted directly into the lungs and cells are removed.
Diagnosing lung cancer is not always as easy as it seems like it should be. Because some of the lung cancer symptoms can also be the same as symptoms of other respiratory illnesses, doctors may not run the necessary diagnostic tests right away.
Biopsies of lung tissue can be performed using a variety of methods. One of the original methods, called mediastinoscopy, required a small surgical incision made in the neck by the breastbone so that a scope could be inserted to collect tissue for biopsy. Today other biopsy methods are used more frequently, but mediastinoscopy is still used when other methods don’t work or provide unclear results.
Some patients with lung cancer also accumulate fluid between their lungs and their chest wall, which can be extremely painful. Doctors can remove this fluid and find out why it’s there using a procedure called thoracentesis.
Specialists will determine what types of testing are necessary for each individual patient based on overall health and symptoms.
Stages of Lung Cancer
When doctors talk about cancer, they talk about it in stages, one through four. Stage one lung cancer is limited only to the lungs. In stage two and three, the cancer is confined to the lungs and possibly the lymph nodes. In stage four, cancer has spread outside of the lungs and to other parts of the body. Metastasized is another word for cancer that spreads. As the stages of cancer progression, cancer becomes less treatable.
What is the Treatment for Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer may be treated in one or in a combination of ways. Surgery to remove any tumors is often the first step. If cancer hasn’t spread, this may remove most of the cancerous cells. For those who have outward lying tumors, or for whom surgery isn’t an option, radiofrequency ablation may be used. This is a procedure in which high-frequency radio waves are used to heat and destroy tumors.
The types of treatments used will depend on the type and stage of cancer.
Is Lung Cancer Curable?
While there are some who survive lung cancer, over half of those diagnosed will die within one year. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death, surpassing the next three biggest cancer killers combined.
The statistics for lung cancer are sobering, especially when compared to more treatable forms of cancer. Roughly 32% of people will live for at least one year after diagnosis. Only 10% will make it five years, and that number drops to 5% for 10-year survival rates.
The deadliness of lung cancer is caused, in part, by its vague symptoms. Many lung cancer sufferers assume they have a cold or a flu-related cough and delay treatment. Additionally, by the time symptoms are present, cancer has often already grown to more advanced stages and is harder to treat.
Who Gets Lung Cancer?
Anyone can develop lung cancer, although it is relatively rare in non-smokers. Cigarette or cigar smoking is the leading causes of lung cancer. Other potential causes include radon exposure and exposure to other harmful gases or chemicals.
How Does Smoking Cause Lung Cancer?
Smokers are far more likely to acquire lung cancer than non-smokers. One reason for this is that cigarettes contain numerous chemicals. These substances are inhaled with every puff, where they enter the lungs and harm sensitive tissues. Over time, these chemicals may cause the growth of cancerous cells.
While not all lung cancers are caused by smoking, many are. Smoking drastically increases one’s chance of getting lung cancer. Those who smoke are urged to quit. Former smokers are less likely to develop lung cancer than those who are still smoking. Ten years after quitting, the risk falls to half that of a current smoker.