Like all cancers, lung cancer is a disease where abnormal cells in the body grow at an uncontrolled rate. With lung cancer, this means that the cells in the lungs are growing, causing tumors to form on or inside the respiratory system. The function of the lungs is to provide red blood cells with oxygen to transport across the body; any kind of growth in the lungs can cause discomfort or breathing problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control, lung cancer is the most common cancer to result in death in men and women in America and there are over 1.3 million deaths worldwide from the disease every year.
There are several ways to contract lung cancer, but the most common is through the inhalation of cigarette smoke. Whether the patient is a smoker themselves or has exposure to secondhand smoking, prolonged inhalation of cigarette smoke can prove to be fatal. Other forms of smoking tobacco (cigars, pipes, etc.) can also lead to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. There are other ways to contract lung cancer, including: inhalation of asbestos, exposure to radon, and family history of lung cancer.
The symptoms of lung cancer can vary. Typically, symptoms don’t appear until the cancer has advanced. There can be a range of symptoms but it is important to note that having one symptom without the other doesn’t necessarily mean that you do or do not have cancer. Every person is different, and if you suspect you may be at risk for the disease you should get checked out by your physician immediately.
Some typical symptoms of lung cancer include coughing and wheezing that won’t go away as well as chest pain. If blood appears in the discharge from your coughing, that is usually another sign that lung cancer is a high probability. Shortness of breath coupled with feeling tired or unmotivated can also be signs that you’re having lung problems. Repeated instances of respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia, as well as enlarged lymph nodes in the chest, can all be signs of advanced lung cancer. These symptoms are also characteristic of other conditions, such tuberculosis or bronchitis; consult with your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.
Detecting the disease is vital for anyone that suspects they may have lung cancer. Upon suspicion of lung cancer, patients should seek their physician’s or a specialist’s counsel right away. Doctors will typically check the symptoms themselves first to rule out any other disease or infection. If they suspect lung cancer, they will use imaging techniques that will help them see into the patient’s lungs, including PET and CT scans, MRIs, bronchoscopy, and even chest X-rays.
Lung cancer cannot be detected by mere observation. True diagnosis of the disease requires a biopsy, or physically removing the diseased cells and looking at them under a microscopic lens. Following a biopsy, oncologists (specialists that deal specifically with cancer diseases) will determine whether the cells are cancerous and what course of treatment is further needed.
Types and Stages
There are two major types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), with the latter comprising about 80 percent of all lung cancer diseases diagnosed. NSCLC can be further broken down into other sub-types, the most common of which are listed below.
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma: The most common type of NSCLC and the most common lung cancer found in men. Cancer cells for this type of lung cancer form in the linings of the bronchial tubes.
- Adenocarcinoma: The most common type of lung cancer that develops among nonsmokers as well as women overall. This disease forms in the mucus production glands of the lungs.
- Bronchioloalveolar Carcinoma: Sometimes called the “mystery lung cancer” because it is among the rarest lung cancers, and less is known about it than any other lung cancer disease. It’s also a type of lung cancer that mostly affects nonsmokers, and develops on the outer alveoli air sacks throughout the organs.
- Large-Cell Carcinoma: A rapidly growing cancer typically found on the surface or near the outside regions of the lungs. The cells are usually larger than other forms of lung cancer, although diagnosis between this and other cancers are impossible to determine until a biopsy has occurred.
Staging of lung cancer depends on what type of cancer is present in the lungs. SCLC is typically split into two separate stages. The first stage is a limited-stage, and is defined as the cancerous cells having not yet left the lungs — in other words, the cancer is remotely located within the lungs and only the lungs. In extensive-stage SCLC, the cancer has spread elsewhere, leaving the lungs and affecting other parts of the body.
NSCLC is assigned to four different stages depending on the severity of the disease.
- Stage I means the lung cancer is still confined to the lung, and has not yet spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage II is subdivided into two separate parts. In Stage IIA, the cancer has grown but still has not yet spread. In Stage IIB, it is determined that the cancer has grown, and has or could have affected the lymph nodes in the area.
- At Stage III, the lung cancer has spread beyond its origins, affecting areas surrounding the lungs including the lymph nodes, and has typically spread beyond a level suitable for surgery.
- At Stage IV, the cancer is spread throughout the chest, and has or can develop in areas beyond; spreading throughout the blood stream to other organs unrelated to the point of origin, including the brain, liver, heart, and so forth.
The lifespan and survival rate of lung cancer is dependent upon several factors, including types of cancer, what stage the cancer is at, and the overall health of the individual fighting the disease.
- SCLC is the more aggressive of the two types of lung cancer, and if left untreated can result in death very rapidly — only 2 to 4 months. However, it is also the most detectable of the two types of lung cancer, and treatment can be applied that will rapidly prolong the livelihood of those suffering from the disease. Even so, lung cancer is a fast-growing cancer and it typically resurfaces even after treatment. Statistics show that about 5 percent of patients with extensive SCLC are still alive two years after the initial diagnosis. Those with limited SCLC have a 40 percent survival rate after two years of treatment.
- NSCLC develops more slowly than SCLC, and thus is more treatable and has a more positive prognosis rate. That rate is reduced, however, as stages of the disease go on. The five-year survival rate (i.e. the percentage of individuals who remain alive after their initial lung cancer diagnosis) goes down as the stage level goes up. Those at Stage I can expect a higher five-year survival rate, between 60-70 percent depending on the type of cancer. As the disease progresses to Stage II, that rate drops to between 40-50 percent. Stage III NSCLC has a five-year survival rate of around 10-30 percent, and Stage IV has less than a five percent rate.
Treatment of the disease typically involves surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation to reduce and remove the number of cancer cells in the lungs. Surgery typically occurs when the cancer is still in a single place, and can be removed easily by a surgeon. If the disease has progressed, it may be necessary to use radiation or chemotherapy to reduce the size and scope of the disease, with surgery as an option as the disease diminishes.
Prevention is important in reducing the odds of developing cancer. Reducing exposure to cigarette smoke can greatly improve your chances of not contracting the disease, especially if you have a family history of lung cancer. Controlling environmental factors while maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle can significantly enhance the fight against cancer.
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