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Lung Cancer - Topic Overview

Lung cancer starts when abnormal cells grow out of control in the lung. They can invade nearby tissues and form tumors. Lung cancer can start anywhere in the lungs and affect any part of the respiratory system camera.gif.

The cancer cells can spread, or metastasize, to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.

Lung cancers are divided into small cell lung cancers (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC). Small cell lung cancers usually grow more quickly and are more likely to spread than non-small cell lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world.1

Most lung cancer is caused by smoking. But sometimes lung cancer develops in people who have never smoked.

Being exposed to secondhand smoke, arsenic, asbestos, radioactive dust, or radon can increase your chances of getting lung cancer. People who are exposed to radiation at work or elsewhere have a higher chance of getting lung cancer.

The first signs of lung cancer may include:

  • Coughing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Feeling short of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Having blood in any mucus that you cough up.

Because these symptoms are so general, many people don't suspect lung cancer. And by the time they see a doctor, often the cancer has already started to spread.

If the cancer spreads within and beyond the chest, other symptoms may occur.

Your symptoms and your medical history—especially if you have any history of cancer in your family—will help your doctor decide how likely it is that you have lung cancer and whether you need tests to be sure.

Lung cancer is usually first found on a chest X-ray or a CT scan. More tests are done to find out what kind of cancer cells you have and whether they have spread beyond your lung. These tests help your doctor and you find out what stage the cancer is in. The stage is a rating to measure how big the cancer is and how far it has spread.

Treatment for lung cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of these therapies. Targeted therapy and laser therapy may also be used.

Few lung cancers are found in the early stages when treatment is most effective. When lung cancer is found before it has spread outside the lungs, about half of these people will live at least 5 more years.2 After lung cancer has spread outside the lungs, how long a person lives usually depends on how far the cancer has spread (the stage) by the time it is found.

Finding out that you have cancer can change your life. You may feel like your world has turned upside down and you have lost all control. Talking with family, friends, or a counselor can really help. Ask your doctor about support groups. Or call the American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) or visit its website at www.cancer.org.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: September 12, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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