What Is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the tissue of the lungs that form large masses known as tumors. There are several types of lung cancer, and how a patient is treated depends on the type of lung cancer diagnosed and the stage of the cancer—the size, location, and if it has spread. Lung cancer causes more deaths in the United States than any other cancer, and the incidence of lung cancer in women. Although lung cancer historically has been difficult to treat, advances in both treatment and symptom management help make this an exciting and hopeful time for patients.
Types of Lung Cancer
There are two main types of lung cancer: non-small cell lung cancer, which is the most common and slow-growing form of the disease, and small cell lung cancer, which is a faster-growing form of the disease that is more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Non-small cell lung cancers
Six types of non-small cell cancers are identified by the appearance of the cancer cells under a microscope:
- Squamous cell carcinoma occurs in the thin, flat squamous cells.
- Adenocarcinoma occurs in cells that secrete mucus.
- Adenosquamous carcinoma occurs in cells that secrete mucus and are flat.
- Large cell carcinoma occurs in cells that are abnormally large.
- Undifferentiated carcinoma occurs in cells that do not look like normal cells and multiply uncontrollably.
- Bronchoalveolar carcinoma could resemble a lung infection, and it is difficult to diagnose and may be complex to treat.
Small cell lung cancers
Three types of small cell lung cancer are:
- Small cell carcinoma or oat cell cancer occurs in cells that are flat, small, shaped as an oval, and resemble oat grains.
- Mixed small cell/large cell carcinoma occurs in cells that are a mix of small and large cancer cells.
- Combined small cell carcinoma is small cell lung cancer combined with squamous and/or secreting cells.
Lung cancer is associated with symptoms such as a cough that lasts for several weeks, discomfort in the chest, difficulty breathing, and hoarseness. Asthmatic patients who do not experience relief within 40 minutes of using a rescue inhaler should also see a doctor for a complete evaluation.
We recommend that if you experience shortness of breath or other symptoms, contact a doctor immediately. Physicians specializing in lung cancer include pulmonary specialists who treat respiratory tract conditions and thoracic surgeons who treat the area in the chest including lungs.
The most significant cause of lung cancer is cigarette smoke according to the National Cancer Institute. More than 8 million people in the United States have at least one serious illness caused by smoking, according to the American Lung Association, and approximately 85 percent of diagnosed lung cancers are in former or current smokers. The more cigarettes a person has smoked, the higher the risk of lung cancer.
Environmental exposure to materials like radon, asbestos, or uranium, or secondhand smoke also may cause cases of lung cancer. Genetics can also play a role.
Risks for current and former smokers
Even if you were once a smoker and quit—and we encourage you to stop smoking through smoking cessation therapy—smoking increases the chance of developing lung cancer.
- The lung cells of smokers go through changes that can lead to lung cancer.
- The longer a person has been smoking, and the more cigarettes she or he smoked a day, the greater her or his risk is of developing lung cancer.
- Current and former smokers who are over the age of 40 with a history of smoking at least a pack a day for 10 years should talk to their physician about obtaining a low-dose Computed Tomography (CT) lung screening.
Risks for non-smokers
Even if you have never smoked, consistent and regular exposure to second hand smoke puts you at risk of lung cancer, which increases under the following past or current circumstances, when you:
- Have lung scarring from certain types of pneumonia or other diseases.
- Have been exposed to radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas emitted by rocks and soil in some areas and that can be trapped in houses and buildings.
- Work or have worked under conditions where you have been exposed to carcinogenic materials such as:
- Asbestos that puts you at risk for mesothelioma.
- Arsenic and some forms of silica and chromium.
- Veterans exposed to nuclear propulsion, herbicides, battlefield emissions, or other carcinogens and who served on submarines, in Vietnam, or the Gulf War.
- Munitions plants employees may be eligible for free screening under the Department of Energy’s Worker Health Protection Program.
- Exposure to coal dust, particularly in a factory or mining facility
Additional risk factors for lung cancer
In addition to the direct causes listed above, there are a number of other lung cancer risk factors:
- 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 your relative was diagnosed before the age of 50.
- 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.
- Race. Lung cancer diagnosis and mortality rates tend to be higher among non-white patients though it is unclear why.
Education and prevention remain key priorities to reducing and helping eliminate lung cancer. Key to preventive education is helping smokers stop smoking through smoking cessation therapy. When you stop smoking, you may reverse smoking’s negative effects. Today it is possible to quit with smoking cessation therapy that works so well you do not have to experience withdrawal and cravings in the process.
Early lung cancer screening is extremely important to recovery since lung cancer has no symptoms in its early stages, and screening will discover the presence of abnormalities for early treatment and a better chance for treatment to be effective. A late diagnosis makes successful cure more difficult. The best way to find early lung cancer is screening if you are at risk of lung cancer. At Mount Sinai’s Lung Screening Program we can discover small, early lung cancers. One of the most effective forms of screening is use computed tomography (CT) scans. Following CT screening, if abnormalities are found, or if symptoms are present, your doctor will order further diagnostic tests, such as fine-needle aspiration (FNA), bronchoscopy, endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS), molecular testing, and positron emission tomography (PET).
Individualized treatment for lung cancer and other thoracic cancers include a broad range of standard, state-of-the-art treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. Minimally invasive interventions are preferred whenever possible, and Mount Sinai is renowned for its advancements in this area. These procedures allow for faster recovery times, less scarring, and less pain than open surgery. In addition, we also use treatments like laser therapy stenting, and radiofrequency ablation.
Should you receive a diagnosis of lung cancer, our team of renowned surgeons, radiation oncologists, oncologists, psychologists, and other professionals will be with you every step of the way to offer you the most advanced surgical and clinical care in a supportive and caring environment. There are both surgical and non-surgical treatment options for lung cancer patients.