Lung Cancer

Lung cancer occurs when cancer cells form in the lung tissue, usually in the cells lining air passages. There are two main types: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. An estimated 228,190 cases of lung cancer (both types) will occur in the U.S. this year. About seven out of every eight people with lung cancer have the non-small cell variety—and although the incidence of both types is higher among smokers, you don’t have to be a former smoker or have been exposed to smoke to develop the disease. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.

5 Steps to Protect Your Lungs

  1. If you smoke, stop. It’s really never too late to quit smoking. The cancer-causing chemicals from smoking clear out from your lungs within weeks of quitting. After 10 years of being smoke-free, your lung cancer risk declines by up to 50 percent. If you have already been diagnosed with lung cancer, quitting can help your treatment work better and reduce the chances of you developing another form of cancer. Active smoking is estimated to cause up to 80 percent of lung cancer cases in women and up to 90 percent in men. Men who smoke are 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers; women are 13 times more likely. Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking all increase the risk of lung cancers, and research shows that smoking low tar or low nicotine cigarettes does not lower your risk. Counseling, nicotine replacement products and certain medications can help you quit for good.
  2. Screen your home for radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in rocks and soil. It can seep up into your home through cracks in your floor, walls or foundation and build up to higher levels. Long-term exposure to high levels of radon gas can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. This risk is higher in smokers than nonsmokers, but even among those who have never smoked, about 30 percent of deaths caused by lung cancer have been linked to radon exposure.
  3. Follow a healthy lifestyle. Research shows that people who follow a diet high in fruits and vegetables and who regularly exercise have lower lung cancer rates. Other studies have found that drinking black tea and eating low-fat dairy may also help reduce the risk.
  4. Know your risk factors. In addition to smoking, having a family history of lung cancer can also boost your risk. People with a relative who have had lung cancer may be twice as likely as those who have no family history to develop the disease. However, because cigarette smoking runs in families, and many family members are also exposed to secondhand smoke, it can be difficult to determine whether the increased risk of lung cancer comes from a genetic change or from cigarette smoke exposure.
  5. Be aware of the warning signs. Lung cancer symptoms are not always clear-cut, and different people can develop different symptoms. Unfortunately, many people with lung cancer don’t develop any symptoms until the cancer has advanced. Symptoms may include frequent coughing that gets worse or doesn’t go away, chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing up blood, fatigue and weight loss. Repeated bouts of pneumonia and swollen or enlarged lymph nodes in the area between the lungs can also occur. Consult your doctor if you develop any of these symptoms.

Ask your doctor

Scientists have been working to develop screening tests to detect lung cancer early, before it spreads. In the past, doctors used chest x-rays and sputum cytology (examining the mucus brought up from the lungs by coughing). Unfortunately, neither of these methods seems to be effective ways to screen for the disease. Research shows that in people who smoke heavily (at least 1 pack of cigarettes a day for 39 years or more) low-dose spiral or helical CT scans, which uses low-dose radiation to make a series of very detailed pictures of areas inside the body, may catch lung cancer before it spreads and help lower the risk of dying from the disease.

Treatment Options

Lung cancer treatment varies based on the type of lung cancer cells (small or non-small cell) and how far it has spread. Options may include surgery to remove the cancer, chemotherapy and/or radiation to shrink or kill the cancer cells, and targeted therapy, using drugs to block the growth and spread of cancer cells without harming normal cells. You may also want to take part in a clinical trial, which studies new treatment options to see if they are safe and effective. Talk to your doctor about the various options available for your treatment plan.

At North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute, we treat the entire person, not just the cancer. And because each diagnosis is unique, we customize a treatment plan to fit your specific needs. We’ll have questions. You’ll have questions. Together, we’ll have a dialogue that continues throughout your care so you have an active role in deciding next steps, making choices and selecting the best treatment options available.

Find a cancer specialist at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute.