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Frequently Asked Questions About Lung Cancer

  • What is lung cancer?
  • Answer:

    In its simplest terms, lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal, cancerous cells in one or both of the lungs. Lumps of these cells form cancerous tumors that make it difficult for the lung to function properly.

  • Who gets lung cancer?
  • Answer:

    Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the U.S. More people die of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be about 226,100 new cases of lung cancer in 2012. About 160,340 people will die of lung cancer in 2012, accounting for 6% of the total number of deaths from any cause in the U.S.Lung cancer is rare in people under age 45 and usually occurs about age 70. The average lifetime chance that a man will develop lung cancer is about 1 in 13. For women it is 1 in 16. These numbers include smokers and nonsmokers. However, risk is higher for smokers than for nonsmokers.


  • What are the risk factors for lung cancer?
  • Answer:

    In a nutshell, the risk factors for lung cancer are smoking, smoking, and smoking. The CDC reports that smoking tobacco is the major risk factor for lung cancer. In the U.S., about 90% of lung cancer deaths in men and almost 80% of lung cancer deaths in women are due to smoking. Smokers who smoke one pack of cigarettes per day are 20 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. Secondhand smoke is also linked to lung cancer. It accounts for about 3,000 lung cancer deaths per year. Other risk factors for this cancer are exposure to asbestos and radon gas and a family history of lung cancer.

  • What are the most common symptoms of lung cancer?
  • Answer:

    This is a tricky one because sometimes there aren't any symptoms of lung cancer. One-quarter of people don’t even have symptoms when their lung cancer is advanced, reports the CDC. In other people, symptoms that may suggest lung cancer can include:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Coughing that doesn't go away
    • Wheezing
    • Coughing up blood
    • Chest pain
    • Fever
    • Weight loss with or without loss of appetite
    • Hoarse voice
    • Shoulder or arm pain or weakness
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Unusual bone pain in the ankles or knees


  • Can nonsmokers get lung cancer?
  • Answer:

    The March 2006 lung cancer death of nonsmoker Dana Reeve, the widow of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, shed some light on this issue. It turns out that more than 60% of new lung cancer patients have never smoked or already have quit smoking, says the Lung Cancer Alliance. In some of these people, exposure to secondhand smoke may actually be a culprit or there may be genetic causes. Reeve, for example, a lounge singer, performed in some very smoky clubs. So in short, yes nonsmokers can -- and do -- get lung cancer. Some cases of lung cancer develop after a long-time smoker has quit, although the risk decreases with time.

  • How is lung cancer treated?
  • Answer:

    To treat lung cancer, surgery to remove the tumor, radiation (X-rays that kill or shrink cancer cells directed at the site of the tumor), chemotherapy (systemic drugs that kill all fast-growing cells in the body including cancer cells), and potentially experimental treatments are all part of your doctors tool box. Before deciding on which treatment or combination of treatments is right for you, your doctor will have to determine how advanced your lung cancer is, a process called staging. The staging process most commonly includes a CT scan of the chest and abdomen and a PET scan. A bone scan, a CT or MRI scan of the brain, and other tests may also be included.

  • Can lung cancer be prevented?
  • Answer:

    The best way to prevent lung cancer is to avoid smoking and to avoid breathing in other people's smoke. If you smoke, quit. While the risk for former smokers remains elevated when compared to a nonsmoker, it continues to fall with each year of smoking cessation. In fact, after quitting for 10 years, an ex-smoker reduces their risk anywhere from 30% to 50%. Just do it!

    There is little evidence that eating a healthy diet can prevent lung cancer, although there are many other benefits. There have been many attempts to reduce the risk of lung cancer in current or former smokers by giving them high doses of vitamins or vitamin-like drugs, but none of these trials have worked out favorably. In one study, a nutrient related to vitamin A called beta-carotene actually increased the rate of lung cancer, so it's back to the drawing board!

  • What are the different types of lung cancer?
  • Answer:

    There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small-cell lung cancer and small-cell lung cancer. Non-small-cell lung cancer accounts for about 80% of lung cancers. They include a heterogeneous group of cancers that grow and spread less rapidly than small-cell lung cancer. By contrast, small-cell lung cancer accounts for 20% of all lung cancers. Although the cells are small, they multiply quickly and form large tumors that can spread throughout the body. Smoking is almost always the cause of small-cell lung cancer.

  • Can lung cancer be detected early?
  • Answer:

    • Unfortunately, there is no test to detect early lung cancer yet. But a new technique called spiral or helical low-dose CT scanning has been successful in detecting early lung cancers in smokers and former smokers when combined with other noninvasive tests. It has not yet been shown whether this test will actually save lives or improve treatment. For one, it often finds abnormalities that require testing and surgery but turn out not to be cancer. It's also uncertain when and how often such testing should be done. THopefully, the National Lung Screening Trial completed in 2011, has finalized guidelines for screening of patients who are at high risk of developing lung cancer. These guidelines recommend screening lung cancer survivors ages 55-79 with a 30 pack year history of smoking, and persons age 50 and above with a 20 pack year history of smoking.--scheduled to end as late as 2011-- will yield definitive answers on whether or not this test is an appropriate way to detect lung cancer early. Until then, talk to your doctor about whether this test is right for you.

  • Does diet affect lung cancer risk?
  • Answer:

    Although some studies have hinted at a link between lung cancer risk and diet, the association remains unproven. The most rigorous of these studies, which compared high-risk persons taking vitamin A supplements to those not doing so, was stopped early because those taking vitamin A (beta carotene) actually developed more lung cancers.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Arnold Wax, MD on June 25, 2012

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