About Lung Cancer

By Kevin Sherer, MD

Lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in one or both lungs. These abnormal cells do not carry out the functions of normal lung cells and do not develop into healthy lung tissue. Eventually, these cancer cells may spread outside of the lung.

Lung Cancer Statistics:

The American Cancer Society’s estimates for lung cancer in the United States for 2019 are:

About 228,150 new cases of lung cancer (116,440 in men and 111,710 in women)

About 142,670 deaths from lung cancer (76,650 in men and 66,020 in women)

Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

Most people diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older; a very small number of people diagnosed are younger than 45. The average age of people when diagnosed is about 70.

What are the different types of lung cancer?

Lung cancer types include small cell, adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and other less common types of tumors. More than half of lung cancers are adenocarcinoma.

How common is lung cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer (both small cell and non-small cell) is the second most common cancer in both men and women (not counting skin cancer). About 13 percent of all new cancers are lung cancers.

What are some ways to reduce the risk of lung cancer?

Prevention offers the greatest opportunity to fight lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Tobacco

Decades have passed since the link between smoking and lung cancers became clear, but smoking is still responsible for most lung cancer deaths. Research is continuing to determine:

  • Ways to help people quit smoking and stay tobacco-free through counseling, nicotine replacement, and other medicines
  • Ways to convince young people to never start smoking
  • Inherited differences in genes that may make some people much more likely to get lung cancer if they smoke or are exposed to someone else’s smoke (secondhand smoke)

Environmental causes

Researchers also continue to investigate some of the other causes of lung cancer, such as exposure to radon and diesel exhaust. Finding new ways to limit these exposures could possibly save many more lives.

Diet, nutrition, and medicines

Researchers are looking for ways to use vitamins or medicines to prevent lung cancer in people at high risk, but so far none have been shown to clearly reduce risk.

Some studies have suggested that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may offer some protection, but more research is needed to confirm this. While any protective effect of fruits and vegetables on lung cancer risk is likely to be much smaller than the increased risk from smoking, following the American Cancer Society dietary recommendations (such as staying at a healthy weight and eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) may still be helpful.  To date, there is no evidence that taking vitamin supplements reduces the risk of lung cancer.

When should I start testing for lung cancer?

Lung cancer testing may be considered in individuals with symptoms who have an unusual cough, hoarse voice, swelling of the face, coughing up blood, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, or tumors detected on imaging (CXR, CT scans) performed for other reasons. Testing is indicated for symptomatic individuals.  Lung cancer screening is an option for some asymptomatic people.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services covers the cost of CT screening in approved programs for those aged 55 to 77 who have no symptoms of lung cancer, have a 30 pack-year smoking history, and if they have quit, have done so within 15 years.

What are the key signs of lung cancer?

Unfortunately, lung cancer often causes no symptoms early in the disease. When symptoms develop, lung cancer may have already spread. Finding lung cancer early, when there is the best chance of cure, remains one of the biggest challenges.

What are some treatment options?

Surgery is an option when the tumor can be removed via thoracotomy or VATS (video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery), a procedure being used more frequently by doctors to treat early-stage lung cancers. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment can also be administered alone or combined with surgery, depending on the type and stage of cancer. Your provider may also prescribe medicine to treat pain, prevent infection and side effects, and help your immune system fight cancer.

 What are the chances of a recurrence?

The chance of recurrence is lowest for early-stage cancers that can be removed with surgery. With more advanced stages, the risk of recurrence goes up, but treatment still can offer benefits.

There are steps you can take to lower your risk of recurrence and stay as healthy as possible. For example, people who have had lung cancer should do their best to stay away from tobacco products. Smoking increases the risk of dying from lung cancer, as well as the risk of many of the second cancers seen after lung cancer.

To help maintain good health, lung cancer survivors should also:

  • Get to and stay at a healthy weight
  • Keep physically active
  • Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods
  • Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 per day for men

Additionally, a healthy lifestyle will also lower the risk of developing other health problems.

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