Lung Cancer FAQ

What is lung cancer?

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 tumors that make it hard for the lung to work properly.

Although the disease is the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., you can do two simple things to greatly lower your odds of getting it: Don’t smoke, and avoid other people’s smoke.

Who gets it?

It’s much more common among people who smoke. Quitting makes that less likely, and never lighting up is even better. But people who have never smoked can get it too.

Lung cancer is rare for people under 45 years old. On average, people are diagnosed at 70.

What raises my risk?

Smoking tobacco is the biggest risk.  Smokers who use one pack of cigarettes per day for 40 years are 20 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from it than people who don't light up. 

Secondhand smoke is also linked to the disease. Other risk factors are exposure to asbestos, radon gas, air pollution, and having had radiation therapy before.

What are the most common symptoms?

There often aren't any symptoms in the early stages. For other people, red flags that can be linked to lung cancer include:

Talk to your doctor if you have those symptoms. There could be other explanations.

Can nonsmokers get lung cancer?

It’s not common, but it can happen. For some of these people, breathing in secondhand smoke may be a culprit, or there may be genetic or environmental causes, such as if you work with asbestos or are exposed to high levels of radon over a long time.

What are the treatments?

It depends on what type of lung cancer you have and how advanced it is.

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Sometimes, doctors can do surgery to remove a tumor if the disease hasn’t spread. You may get radiation or chemotherapy, too.

If your lung cancer is advanced -- for instance, if it has spread to distant parts of your body -- there are still treatments that can control the disease and prevent further symptoms. You might get radiation and chemotherapy to shrink tumors and help control symptoms.

Newer treatments, called targeted therapy and immunotherapy, may be something that your doctor can recommend depending on your tumor type.

Pain management is also key. At any point in your treatment, tell your doctor if you’re in pain.

If your doctor mentions “palliative care,” that includes helping you feel comfortable, managing pain, and improving your life as much as possible. It’s not the same as hospice care, which focuses on preparing for the end of life.

Pay attention to your emotions, too. Dealing with cancer is hard. It’s normal to feel a lot of strong emotions, including fear, anger, and sadness. It can help to talk with a counselor or join a support group to help you work through those feelings and face the many challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis.

Before recommending which treatment or combination of treatments is right for you, your doctor will determine how advanced your lung cancer is, a process called staging. This usually involves getting a CT scan of the chest and abdomen, and possibly a PET scan. You may also get a bone scan, a CT or MRI scan of the brain, and other tests.

Can lung cancer be prevented?

The best way to prevent it is to avoid smoking and to avoid breathing in other people's fumes.

If you smoke, work on quitting, even if you’ve tried before. After 10 years, an ex-smoker lowers their risk of lung cancer anywhere from 30% to 50%. You’ll also get many other health benefits for your heart and the rest of your body.

It can be tough to kick the habit. Ask your doctor for help. Keep trying!

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What are the different types of lung cancer?

There are two main types: non-small-cell lung cancer and small-cell lung cancer.

Non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the more common one. It accounts for about 85% of lung cancers. They include a group of cancers that generally grow and spread less rapidly than small-cell lung cancer.

By contrast, the small-cell kind 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.

Can doctors find lung cancer early?

A type of CT scan, called spiral or helical low-dose CT scanning, has helped to find the disease early in smokers and former smokers when combined with other tests.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends an annual CT scan for adults ages 55-80 who are heavy smokers or who quit within the past 15 years.

Keep in mind that scans also find a lot of things that lead to more tests, or even surgery, and turn out not to be cancer. So, before you get a scan, you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons with your doctor.

Does diet affect lung cancer risk?

Some studies suggest that eating healthy can lower your risk, along with giving you many other benefits for the rest of your body.

Many studies have tried 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. In one study, a nutrient related to vitamin A called beta-carotene actually increased the rate of lung cancer for people who smoke. So, ask your doctor before you start any supplements.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 10, 2018

Sources

SOURCES: 

Lungcancer.org: "Lung cancer 101." 

American Cancer Society: "Detailed Guide: Lung Cancer - Non-small Cell. What are the key statistics for lung cancer."

CDC: "Lung cancer Risk factors." 

CDC: "Lung cancer Symptoms." 

Lung Cancer Alliance News: "Lung Cancer Reducing Risk." 

Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention (ATBC) Trial, National Cancer Institute: "Can Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Be Found Early?" 

Schabath, M. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 28, 2005.

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