Lung Cancer Overview: (Early Signs, Types, & When to See a Doctor)

Learn about how these lung cancers are caused and your treatment options.

What is Lung cancer?

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths not just in the United States but worldwide as well.

Lung Cancer Overview: (Early Signs, Types, & When to See a Doctor)
Lung cancer is a condition that causes cells to divide in the lungs uncontrollably. Shutterstock Images

In fact, in the US lung cancer claims more lives every year compared to breast cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer combined[1].

This type of cancer begins in the lungs and is commonly caused by smoking.

The risk of developing lung cancer increases with the length of time and how many cigarettes a person has smoked.

By simply stopping smoking even if a person has been smoking for many years, the risk of developing lung cancer can be considerably reduced.

Lung Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Lung Cancer Signs and Symptoms

The most common symptoms include the following:

  • Chronic cough
  • Chest pain that usually gets worse with coughing, breathing deeply or laughing
  • Hoarseness of voice
  • Loss of appetite leading to weight loss
  • Rust-coloured sputum or coughing up blood
  • Breathlessness especially with physical activity
  • Tiredness or weakness
Lung Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Lung Cancer Signs and Symptoms. Shutterstock Images

Lung Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Most lung cancers are caused by smoking which can cause the deadly disease not just in smokers but people regularly exposed to second-hand smoke[2] as well.

However, lung cancer can also occur in people who have never smoked[3] and those who are not regularly exposed to second-hand smoke.

In such cases, there is no apparent cause of the disease.

Experts believe that smoking damages the cells lining the lungs, which can eventually cause lung cancer.

Cigarettes also contain a lot of carcinogens.

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The following are risk factors for lung cancer:

  • Smoking: This is the principal risk factor for developing lung cancer.
  • Radon Gas Exposure: Radon comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in rock, water and soil. It eventually becomes part of the air and unsafe levels can accumulate in homes and other buildings.
  • Chemical Exposure: Asbestos, chromium, nickel and arsenic increases risk of developing cancer especially with prolonged exposure.
  • Family History: People with family history of lung cancer have a higher risk of developing it.

Lung Cancer Types

Lung Cancer Types

Lung Cancer Types. Webpathology Images

The two general types of lung cancer are:

  • Small Cell Lung Cancers (SCLC): This is the most aggressive type of lung cancer rapidly growing. It is usually caused by cigarette smoking. SCLCs spread rapidly to other parts of the body and are typically discovered after spreading extensively.
  • Non-Small Cell Lung Cancers (NSCLC): It is the most common type of lung cancer. There are three main types of NSCLC, depending on the type of cells found in the tumor. They are adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas and large cell carcinomas.

Lung Cancer Tests and Diagnosis

Lung Cancer Tests and Diagnosis

Lung Cancer Tests and Diagnosis. Shutterstock Images

If there is a reason to believe that a patient has lung cancer, the physician can order certain tests that look for cancerous cells and are used for ruling out other conditions.

To diagnose lung cancer, the physician may recommend one or a combination of the following tests:

  • Imaging Tests: An x-ray image of the lungs can show an abnormal mass or nodule. CT scans can reveal if there are small lesions in the lungs that are sometimes not detected using an x-ray.
  • Sputum Cytology: If the patient has a cough that produces sputum, it can be examined under a microscope which can sometimes reveal that there are lung cancer cells present.
  • Lung Biopsy: A tissue sample of abnormal cells is removed through biopsy. It will be examined under a microscope to check for cancerous cells.

Lung Cancer Treatments and Medications

The primary doctor will choose one or a combination of the following treatments:

  • Surgery: The lung cancer and some healthy tissue will be removed using a wedge resection, segmental resection, lobectomy or pneumonectomy.
  • Chemotherapy: Drugs are used to kill cancer cells. One or more chemotherapy drugs may be taken orally or given intravenously.
  • Radiation Therapy: High powered energy beams are used to kill cancer cells.
  • Targeted Drug Therapy: These are newer treatments for cancer that work by targeting certain abnormalities in cancer cells. It can include the drugs Avastin, Tarceva or Xalkori[4] depending on the goal of the targeted drug therapy. Each drug has its own side effects and it is up to the primary doctor to weigh the pros and cons of using a drug for treatment.

Know More About This Deadly Disease

Precautions and Self Care

People with lung cancer often suffer because of the signs and symptoms of the disease and the adverse effects caused by treatment.

Palliative care or supportive care is a specialty area of medicine that focuses on minimizing the signs and symptoms.

Coping with shortness of breath is not easy, but it can be done by relaxing, finding a comfortable position, and focusing on breathing.

Some alternative therapies can help in relieving the different signs and symptoms but make sure to consult your doctor first before trying any of these methods.

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