Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the second-most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women. However it is still the #1 cause of cancer death.

Living with Lung Cancer

About Lung Cancer

Understanding Lung Cancer

Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Preventing Lung Cancer

Living with Lung Cancer 
People with lung cancer face physical and emotional challenges. If you or someone you love has lung cancer, there are steps to take to help cope with the lifestyle changes this disease and its treatment brings.

Get information
Understanding your illness and treatment can help you feel more in control.  Don't be afraid to ask questions.  Treatment for lung cancer involves many doctors, nurses, social workers and other specially trained healthcare professionals.  You will receive lots of new and complex information and need to make many serious decisions.  So it is important to be able to communicate clearly with your whole healthcare team.

  • Prepare questions for your team before your visit.
  • Write them down.
  • Be sure that you understand what your doctors and other members of your team are telling you.
  • Share your questions and concerns.
  • Carefully follow your doctors' orders.

Side effects from cancer treatment
These can include hair loss, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.  Each person reacts differently.  If your side effects are really bad or last longer than expected, talk to your doctors and nurses.  They should be able to make suggestions to help relieve your symptoms.

About Lung Cancer 
Lung cancer is a malignant tumor in the lungs. This means that the abnormal cells of the tumor grow without order or control. They destroy the healthy lung tissue around them.

Although some progress has been made in the treatment of lung cancer, it is still the most common cause of cancer death. In 2010, more than 222,000 new cases were expected to be diagnosed and about 157,000 Americans were expected to die from lung cancer.

The American Lung Association has developed this section of information for people living with lung cancer. We know that the more you learn about lung cancer, the better you and your loved ones can manage living with this disease, making the most of every day, and maintain the quality of life that is important to you.

Understanding Lung Cancer 
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer is a malignant tumor in the lungs.  This means that the abnormal cells of the tumor grow without order or control.  They destroy the healthy lung tissue around them.  Lung cancer can spread to other parts of the body.  Sometimes other types of cancer can spread to the lungs.  This type of tumor is not lung cancer.  The information here is about lung tissue cells that are abnormal and have become lung cancer.

There are two major types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.  Non-small cell lung cancer is the more common.  It makes up about 80 percent of lung cancer cases.  This type of cancer usually grows and spreads to other parts of the body more slowly than small cell lung cancer does.

Why is Lung Cancer so Serious?
One reason lung cancer is such a killer is that it is hard to detect in its early stages.  It may take years for the lung cancer to grow, and early on there are usually no symptoms.  By the time the patient starts to notice symptoms, the cancer is often advanced.  Researchers are working hard to develop tests that can detect lung cancer in its early stages, when it can be treated more successfully.  Researchers are also seeking new treatments to increase the survival time and even cure lung cancer.

What Causes Lung Cancer?
Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer.  It causes about 87 percent of lung cancer cases.  Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that are known to cause cancer.  And smokers are not the only ones affected.  Nonsmokers can breathe in secondhand smoke and get lung cancer or other illnesses.

Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer.  Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that occurs naturally in soil.  It comes up through the soil and enters buildings through small gaps and cracks.  One out of every 15 homes in the U.S. has a radon problem.

Industrial exposures pose a lung cancer risk.  Working with certain hazardous materials, such as asbestos, uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and some petroleum products is especially dangerous.

Genetic factors also play a role in the likelihood that someone gets lung cancer.  Mutations in several genes have been linked to lung cancer, suggesting the disease has a genetic component.  So a family history of lung cancer may indicate a higher risk of developing the disease.

A small portion of lung cancers occur in people with no apparent exposure risk for the disease. Lung cancer in people who have never smoked is a major public health problem and continued research is needed. Women, compared to men, appear to have higher rates of lung cancer that is not linked to smoking.

Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment  
What are the Symptoms of Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer symptoms usually appear only in more advanced cases.  Symptoms vary from person to person and may include:

  • A cough that doesn't go away and gets worse over time
  • Constant chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath, or wheezing
  • Loss weight and loss of appetite
  • Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia

See your doctor right away if you notice any of these symptoms.

How is Lung Cancer Detected?
To help find the cause of symptoms, your doctor will review your medical history, smoking history, exposure to environmental and occupational substances, and family history of cancer.  He or she will also perform a physical exam, and may order a chest x-ray and other tests. 

To confirm the presence of lung cancer, the doctor must examine suspicious tissue from the lung.  To do this, the doctor removes a small sample of the tissue during a procedure called a biopsy.  Then the tissue is examined under a microscope.

There are some tests being developed that show promise in the early detection of lung cancer.  These tests have not yet been demonstrated to improve earlier detection and improved survival, but many researchers are working to develop tests that hopefully can make a difference in early lung cancer screening and survival.

If you are a current or former smoker and/or have any symptoms, talk to your doctor about diagnostic tests.

What is Staging?
Staging is part of the diagnosis and also determines to a large extent what your recommended treatment plan may be.  Staging means finding out if and how much the lung cancer has spread.  This is important because your treatment and the general outlook for your recovery and chance of cure depend upon the stage of your lung cancer.

How is Lung Cancer Treated?
One or more types of treatment can be used.  The kind of treatment used depends upon the type of cancer, its size, where it is in the lungs, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.  If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, your healthcare team may want to talk to you about the following:

Surgery involves removing the tumor, along with the diseased part of the lung.  If the tumor is small and has not spread outside the lungs, surgery is about the best chance for a cure.  In fact, if lung cancer is discovered in the early stages, one can expect a more than 50 percent cure rate.

But some tumors cannot be removed because of their size and location.  And some patients may have other health problems that make surgery impossible.  In those cases, other options may be offered.

Radiation therapy uses powerful high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.  The radiation is aimed at the tumor, and kills the cancer cells only in that area of the lungs.  Radiation can be used before surgery to shrink the tumor.  It may also be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells left in the lungs.

Chemotherapy uses special drugs to destroy cancer cells throughout the body.  Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells still present in nearby tissue or elsewhere in the body.  It may also be used in more advanced stages of the disease to relieve cancer symptoms.  Most of these drugs are either taken as a pill or given by IV (intravenous) line.

When you or a loved one is diagnosed with lung cancer, you may have many questions, and the answers may not always be clear at first.  Everyone with lung cancer is not the same and the options for treatment are not the same.  Here are some additional resources to help with the questions you may have.

Preventing Lung Cancer 
If you are concerned about getting lung cancer, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

  • If you are a smoker- STOP SMOKING.
    Quitting smoking is the single most important thing a smoker can do to enhance the length and quality of his or her life.  The American Lung Association has many programs to help you quit for good.
  • If you don't smoke, don't start. 
    Smoking causes lung cancer, COPD, and many other illnesses.  And consider this: When smoking is combined with another risk factor, such as radon exposure, the risk of cancer is even higher.
  • Test your home for radon.
    You can do this with inexpensive, easy-to-use test kits sold at hardware stores.
  • Be aware of industrial compounds.
    If you are exposed to dust and fumes at work, ask your health and safety advisor about how you are being protected.
  • Help fight pollution.
    Work with others in your community to help clean up the air you and your family breathe.
  • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
    Make your home smoke-free.  You'll not only protect yourself, but your family too.  Learn about your rights to a smoke-free environment at work and in public places.

There are many resources available to people living with lung cancer. The American Lung Association and our partners have provided information and tools created especially for you to use. Please explore the offerings here and on our national site