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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. So the ability of the lungs to bring oxygen in to the body and expel carbon dioxide is hampered.

  • 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 (224,210) new cases of lung cancer in 2014. About 159,260 people will die of lung cancer in 2014, 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:

  • 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 10% to 15% of lung cancer cases occur in nonsmokers. 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 doctor's arsenal. 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 possibly 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 15% 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 Scans also find a lot of abnormalities that require additional testing or even surgery that turn out not to be cancer. The net benefits should outweigh the risks.

    In December 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released recommendations for annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose CT in adults ages 55-80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. Screening should be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that substantially limits life expectancy or the ability or willingness to have curative lung surgery.

  • 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 smokers taking vitamin A (beta carotene) actually developed more lung cancers.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 09, 2014

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