The stats can look scary: Lung cancer is the third most common cancer and also the deadliest. Every year, lung cancer claims more lives than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined.
What do you need to know about lung cancer? Here are the basics:
What is lung cancer?
Your body’s cells are always dividing and growing. Cancer is a disease in which some cells start dividing uncontrollably and grow into a mass, also called a tumor. These tumors can begin in any organ or tissue.
Lung cancer describes any cancer that starts in the lungs. From there, this cancer can spread to your lymph nodes or other organs.
5 fast facts about lung cancer
- Smoking causes around 80% to 90% of lung cancers.
- The best way to prevent lung cancer is to quit smoking as soon as possible or never start.
- In its early stages, lung cancer usually doesn’t cause any symptoms.
- Screenings can catch lung cancer early at its most treatable stages.
- Treatments for lung cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. If you get diagnosed, our cancer care team will tailor your treatment plan to your unique case.
Are you at risk?
Smoking cigarettes is the leading risk factor for lung cancer, and smoking other tobacco products like cigars is also a major risk factor. Tobacco smoke contains thousands of unhealthy chemicals. When you smoke, you’re breathing in this toxic mixture directly into your lungs.
It’s also dangerous to the people around you as secondhand smoke can also cause lung cancer.
The more often you smoke and the more cigarettes you smoke, the higher your risk. However, no amount of smoking is safe. Your risk of lung cancer goes up even if you only smoke occasionally.
Long-term exposure to radon is the second top risk factor. Radon is a gas that naturally occurs in rocks, soil and water. People can get exposed to radon if the gas leaks into their homes or workplaces. The only way to detect radon is to have your home tested for the gas as it is odorless, tasteless and invisible to the naked eye.
Other risk factors include exposure to asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust and certain forms of other chemicals. Having a personal or family history of lung cancer can also increase your risk.
What are lung cancer’s symptoms?
There are many different symptoms of lung cancer. They can include:
- Persistent coughing or coughing that keeps getting worse, especially if you’re coughing up blood
- Wheezing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Unexplained weight loss
These symptoms usually occur at the later stages of the disease. The early stages of lung cancer often have no symptoms. That’s why screenings are so important if you’re at risk of developing this cancer.
Should you get screened?
If you’re concerned about lung cancer, there’s one person you should turn to with your screening questions: your primary care provider. They know your health history the best and can make screening recommendations based on your risk factors.
Ask about lung cancer screening if you meet all these criteria:
- You’re between 50 and 77 years old (age criteria may depend on your insurance company).
- You’re in good health.
- You currently smoke or have quit in the last 15 years.
- You have a smoking history of a 20 pack-year or more. A pack-year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 20 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years.
Lung cancer screenings use computed tomography (CT) scans. These scans combine multiple X-rays taken at several angles for a complete picture of your lung health. Providers then look at this image to check for any abnormalities in your lungs.
A CT scan is painless and takes only a few minutes to complete. All major insurance companies cover lung cancer screenings.
If your CT scan does catch an abnormality, your provider may want to get it biopsied. This involves taking a sample of the area of concern and testing it for cancer.
Information in this article was reviewed by Jonathan Bleeker, M.D., a specialist in cancer and blood disorders at Sanford Health.
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