Lung cancer is a serious life-threatening disease that is caused by the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that develop in one or both lungs. The abnormal lung cells fail to allow the organ to function and do not follow a normal cycle of cellular growth to mature, reproduce and die off leaving healthy lung tissue in its place. The abnormal growth instead forms a tumor that interferes with lung functioning which is crucial to providing oxygen through the bloodstream out to the entire body.
Normal function cells in the lung receive information from its DNA (genetic material) that provides guidance to mature the cell, allow it to divide into two newly formed cells as an exact duplicate and then die off to allow the next generation to thrive. Alternatively, cancer tissues are the result of a mutation (genetic mistake) in the cell's DNA that disrupts the aging process.
Lung tumors that do not spread to other areas of the body are called benign, whereas, malignant tumors are extremely dangerous and can metastasize (spread) through the lymph system or bloodstream to distant sites throughout the body. Metastatic cancer is extremely difficult to treat successfully, which often claims a life of the patient after all treatment options have been exhausted.
Most individuals suffer from primary lung cancer that develops in the lung tissue instead of secondary lung cancer that originates somewhere else and metastasizes (spreads) through the body until it reaches the lungs. Treating secondary lung cancer is different than primary lung cancer because the cancerous mass is not made up of abnormal lung tissue.
- Who Gets Lung Cancer?
- Classifying Lung Cancer
- Common Symptoms
- Diagnosing Lung Cancer
- Treating Lung Cancer
Who Gets Lung Cancer?
Statistics maintained by the National Cancer Institute reveals that approximately 221,000 cases of lung cancer are diagnosed every year in the United States that result in nearly 160,000 deaths related to the disease. Most cases of lung cancer are the result of mutations that were caused by environmental factors and/or the aging process. This includes exposure to asbestos fibers and radon gas or long-term smoking of tobacco products.
American males are more likely to develop lung cancer (one out of every 13 men) compared to American females (one out of every 16 women) over the course of their lifetime. These figures involve those who smoke, those who no longer smoke, and those who have never smoked. The majority of lung cancer patients have already reached their sixtieth year before receiving a diagnosis. However, cancer might thrive with or without producing symptoms for many years before the patient seeks out medical attention.
Classifying Lung Cancer
Most cases of lung cancer can be classified into specific types based on the appearance of the cancer cells under a microscope including non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. By far, there are many more cases (80%) of non-small cell lung cancer compared to small cell lung cancer.
Non-small cell lung cancer can be categorized into four specific types that require individualized treatment. These categories include:
- Epidermoid Carcinoma (Squamous Cell Carcinoma) – As the most common form of non-small cell lung cancer this condition forms in the lining of the bronchial tubes.
- Adenocarcinoma – Non-smokers and women are most at risk for developing adenocarcinoma in the lung's mucous producing glands.
- Large-Cell Undifferentiated Carcinoma – This form of cancer grows rapidly on the service or near the outer edges of the lungs.
- Bronchioalveolar Carcinoma – Is an extremely rare form of lung cancer forms near the air sacs in the lungs.
Alternatively, small cell lung cancer can be characterized by the time it takes cells to quickly multiply and eventually form a large tumor that can metastasize (spread) throughout the body. Nearly every case of small cell lung cancer is caused by smoking.
The type of symptoms vary greatly between individuals and often depend on the size and where the cancerous mass is located and if it has metastasized to other areas of the body. It usually takes many years for lung cancer symptoms to appear that typically present themselves in the advanced stage of the disease. The most common lung cancer symptoms affecting the air passageways and chest include:
- Intense and persistent coughing
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Enlarged or swollen lymph nodes
- Chest shoulder pain caused by coughing
- Stridor (harsh sounds that occur when breathing)
- Blood detected in the sputum (coughing up blood)
- Hoarseness of the voice
- Chronic pneumonia
- Chronic bronchitis
- Swelling of the face or neck
- Overall weakness
- Unexplained weight loss
- Blood clots and bleeding
- Difficulty with memory and brain function
Many sufferers, especially smokers, will avoid seeing a doctor in time to stop the lung cancer from metastasizing (spreading) to newly affected areas. If the lung cancer reaches the brain, the individual will likely experience seizures, headaches, or vertigo. If cancer metastasizes to the liver the patient will likely experience brittle, painful broken bones and the signs of jaundice where the skin and eyes to come yellowing appearance. In addition, cancer can affect the body's adrenal glands and cause significant changes in hormones.
Diagnosing Lung Cancer
In addition to recognizing many of the common signs associated with lung cancer, the doctor can diagnose the condition using various procedures including a bronchoscopic camera tool that captures imaging of the bronchial tract along with chest x-rays, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, CT (computerized tomography) scans, and PET scans.
The doctor will also perform a comprehensive physical examination along with a chest exam, an analysis of sputum to detect coughed up blood. These procedures can detect the location of the tumor and determine if it has affected any other additional organs.
Confirmation of lung cancer usually is verified by extracting cancer cells through a biopsy and viewing the sample under a microscope. A train path colleges can determine if cancer involves small cells or non-small cells.
Treating a diagnosed condition of lung cancer requires staging the disease to determine how far the condition is spread in the organ or out to other distant body sites. The 5 stages associated with non-small cell lung cancer involve:
- Stage I – At this stage, the tumor is detected in a single lung and has not metastasized to the lymph nodes.
- Stage II – At this stage, the disease has spread to the surrounding lymph nodes of the infected lung.
- Stage IIIa – At this point, the disease and spread outward from the lung to the limp notes surrounding the trachea, diaphragm, and chest wall on the side of the affected lung.
- Stage IIIb – At this stage, the disease has spread to the other lung or any part of the neck.
- Stage IV – At this point, cancer has metastasized to other parts of the lung and outward to distant body parts.
Unlike non-small cell lung cancer with five varying stages, there are only two stages that classify small cell lung cancer – extensive and limited. In the extensive stage, the lung cancer tumor has affected the other lung and metastasized to other body organs. The limited stage identifies the tumor as existing in a single lung and possibly reaching nearby lymph nodes.
Treating Lung Cancer
Many of the effective treatments for lung cancer depend on its stage. The doctors may recommend surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or drug therapy. In addition, smokers should quit smoking. In the advanced stage of the disease, doctors recommend palliative care to minimize the debilitating symptoms associated with end-stage lung cancer.