Frequently Asked Questions about Lung Cancer 

What is lung cancer? 
In short, lung cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the lungs. Lung cancer may eventually spread to other parts of the body if not discovered and treated early. 

How common is lung cancer? 
Lung cancer results in more deaths in the United States than any other cancer; in fact, it accounts for more deaths than the next three most common cancers (breast, colon, and prostate) combined. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 156,940 deaths from lung cancer (85,600 among men and 71,340 among women) in the United States in 2011. Lung cancer accounts for about 27 percent of all cancer deaths. 

Is having lung cancer an automatic death sentence? 
It doesn't have to be. When lung cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stage, the chance for cure is high. Annual low-dose computed tomography (CT) screenings can find lung cancers in their earliest stages, when up to 92 percent of them can be treated successfully (New England Journal of Medicine 2006: 355: 1763-1771). 

Why is early lung cancer screening important? 
Because lung cancer has no symptoms in its early stages, more than 85 percent of the men and women who are diagnosed with lung cancer today are diagnosed in a late stage, after symptoms have occurred and when there is very little chance of cure. As a result, approximately 95 percent of the more than 221, 000 people diagnosed each year die from the disease. 

What are the tests for lung cancer? 
There are a number of tests that can be used to detect lung cancer. However, most tests miss many early cancers, and are often ordered only after the patient has started having symptoms. Traditional lung cancer tests include chest x-ray, sputum cytology (analyzing cells in mucus), and bronchoscopy (using a tube through the mouth to look at the lungs with a tiny camera). 

Based on our research, we have found that using CT scans to screen people at risk of developing lung cancer can find very small, early lung cancers, which gives doctors a much better chance of curing them. 

What causes lung cancer? 
The most significant cause of lung cancer is cigarette smoke (National Cancer Institute). Roughly 85 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed in former or current smokers; other cases may be caused by environmental exposure to materials like radon, asbestos or uranium, or secondhand smoke. Genetics can also play a role. 

What is the role that cigarettes play in lung cancer? 
Ninety percent of lung cancer deaths among men and approximately 80 percent of lung cancer deaths among women are due to smoking (National Cancer Institute). The more cigarettes a person has smoked, the higher their risk of lung cancer. If you've quit smoking, your risk is lower than it would be if you had continued to smoke today, but it remains higher than if you had never smoked. If you want to minimize your risk of lung cancer, do not smoke. If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start. 

What are the other causes of lung cancer? 
For the 10-15 percent of lung cancers that are diagnosed in nonsmokers, there are a number of potential causes:

  • Heavy exposure to asbestos, radon, uranium, arsenic, and other carcinogens
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Heavy exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Lung scarring from past illness 

Are there additional risk factors for lung cancer? 
In addition to the direct causes listed above, there are a number of other risk factors to be aware of.

  • Family history. You are at an elevated risk of lung cancer if a blood-related parent or sibling has had lung cancer. In particular, your risk is elevated if this relative was diagnosed before the age of 50, which suggests that genetic factors played an important role.
  • Gender. Though more men are diagnosed with and die from lung cancer, recent research has indicated that women with the same smoking history and age as men are more likely to develop lung cancer. In July 2006, the International Early Lung Cancer Action Program released a study showing that with age and smoking history held constant, women were twice as likely as men to develop lung cancer. This was mitigated, however, by the finding that they were also less likely to die from the disease.
  • Race. It has been observed for some time that lung cancer diagnosis and mortality rates are higher among non-white patients. Higher rates of smoking have always been suspected as a key driver of this, as has the greater popularity of menthol cigarettes among African-American men. Recent research, however, suggests that some groups have other factors driving risk. A study released in January 2006 by University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine found that among smokers who smoked less than one pack per day, African-Americans and Native Hawaiians showed a much greater risk of developing lung cancer than other racial and ethnic groups. After controlling for a number of factors, the study was unable to identify why, exactly, these groups were more susceptible.

What treatment options are available for lung cancer?
There are a variety of surgical and non-surgical treatment options for lung cancer. Early stage lung cancer can be treated surgically by removing the malignant area in a procedure called a lobectomy.  Our expertly trained thoracic surgeons offer the most advanced and least invasive approach to lung cancer surgery, called video-assisted thoracoscopic lobectomy, or VATS lobectomy.

Non –surgical options include stereotactic body radiation therapy which delivers high doses of radiation to the lung tumor. Additionally, modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is available, which delivers high doses of radiation precisely to the tumor while avoiding damage to critical structures such as the lung and the esophagus.


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