What Is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer, simply put, is an uncontrolled overgrowth of cells in the lungs. This overgrowth is called a tumor. Tumor cells can spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.
There are many types of lung cancer, which are classified according to the different cells in the lungs that they affect. In general, lung cancer is classified as small cell or non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). NSCLC can be further characterized into several subtypes.
Risk Factors for Lung Cancer
Known risk factors for developing lung cancer include:
- Smoking: Although 20% of women with lung cancer are life-long non-smokers, tobacco usage is the most common reason for developing lung cancer. The chemicals in tobacco leaves and in the smoke produced by tobacco products can cause lung cells to undergo genetic mutations, eliminating the control systems that regulate proper cell growth. Cells therefore do not undergo the normal turnover and cell death that should occur. Cell growth becomes unchecked and out of control. Cells also begin to grow in places where they should not grow. If you are a current smoker, quit! There are many resources available for people who need help quitting. If you quit but only for a while, quit again! Click here for more information on smoking cessation. Speak with your primary care physician about how to best stop smoking.
- Myth: “I’ve already smoked for years, so it’s too late to quit”
- It is never too late to stop smoking; stopping at any time will help lower your risk for lung cancer, and that risk will further decrease over time as you continue to avoid tobacco smoke.
- Secondhand Smoke: Lung cancer can also occur in people who do not actively smoke themselves, but who passively inhale the smoke produced by people around them.
- Prior Breast Cancer: Patients who have been treated for breast cancer with radiation therapy have a higher risk of developing lung cancer.
- Family History: People with family members that have had lung cancer are considered to have a higher risk for developing lung cancer themselves. The absolute increase in risk is difficult to know since much of the risk may be due to the high incidence of smoking within families and exposure to secondhand smoke. However, abstaining from smoking as well as preventing radon and asbestos exposure are ways to reduce the risk.
- Environmental factors
- Radon Gas: Radon is an odorless, colorless gas that emit radioactive particles. These particles can be damaging to cells in the lung, and are known to cause lung cancer. Have your home tested for elevated radon levels.
- Asbestos: Asbestos, a group of naturally-occuring compounds used in the construction of many older homes, is a known carcinogen. Most patients with asbestos-related lung cancer have had former exposure to asbestos from working in mills, factories, and mines.
Lung Cancer is Different From Other Cancers
Unlike some other cancers, lung cancer can occur with no symptoms. Lung cancer’s symptoms often occur only by the time the disease is very advanced, at which point it is difficult to treat. The solution is to update your doctor about any changes in health (fatigue, weight loss, etc), as well as to provide your doctor with your complete medical history, especially if you have been exposed to any of the following risk factors:
- Secondhand smoke
- Prior chest radiation therapy (for prior breast cancer, lymphoma, etc.)
- Family history
- Asbestos and radon Exposure
These risk factors can increase your susceptibility to lung cancer. Providing your doctor with as much information as possible about your lifestyle will help your doctor determine if lung cancer is a possible reason for a decline in health, and whether you would benefit from closer follow-up, a Chest X-ray, or Chest CT. Be aggressive about obtaining a diagnosis with which you are satisfied.
With that said, the following symptoms are common in patients with lung cancer:
- Appetite loss and/or weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Hemoptysis (coughing up blood)
- Chest pain
However, NOT ALL PATIENTS WITH LUNG CANCER EXPERIENCE THESE SYMPTOMS. Many patients with early lung cancer are asymptomatic, or their symptoms are mistaken for other medical conditions. However, it is when the disease is in its early stage that it should be diagnosed and treated, so do not hesitate to talk to your doctor about how to best diagnose and treat lung cancer.