Lung cancer is the most common form of cancer in both men and women in the U.S. It can be particularly tricky to treat because often, symptoms don’t show up until the cancer has spread to other organs. There are three main types of lung cancer:
- Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
- Small Cell Lung Cancer
- Lung Carcinoid Tumor
Treatment varies depending on which type of cancer a person has, and what stage. Early-stage lung cancer is typically treated with surgery. Later-stage lung cancer may be treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. Immunotherapy to treat lung cancer has also yielded some pretty incredible results.
Lung Cancer Symptoms
Unfortunately, lung cancer tends to go undetected until it has spread to other parts of the body. The first symptom of lung cancer may be a seizure that indicates the disease has spread to the brain. Often, when a lung cancer is discovered in an early stage, it’s because a doctor spotted something unusual on an X-ray for an unrelated issue. Still, here are some signs that could indicate lung cancer — or at least warrant a discussion with your doctor.
- A persistent cough
- Coughing up blood
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Losing weight without trying
- Bone pain
Every one of these symptoms could be attributed to something else — so it’s important to make an appointment to see a doctor if you’re worried about your lung health.
Who is at Risk for Lung Cancer?
We all know that smoking cigarettes increases a person’s risk of getting lung cancer, but smoking is not the only cause of the disease. Non-smokers can, and do, get lung cancer. Researchers are beginning to understand the differences between lung cancer in smokers versus non-smokers, and they’re getting closer to developing targeted treatments that will be able to address the genetic drivers of lung cancer in non-smokers.
Lung cancer can also be caused by exposure to radon gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, radon cannot be seen or smelled — the only way to know whether it’s accumulating in your home is to test for it. Exposure to other harmful chemicals like asbestos may also increase a person’s risk of getting lung cancer. Asbestos was commonly used in insulation, roofing, and in various paints and plastics before the EPA banned it in 1989. Family history and whether you live in an area with heavy air pollution can also contribute to lung cancer risk.
For people who do smoke — or did at one point in their lives — it’s important to keep up with screening. Waiting until symptoms show up often equates to waiting until the cancer has spread.
Staging Lung Cancer and Treatment Options
The staging process begins once a lung cancer diagnosis is confirmed. After an initial computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan, your doctor will likely order a brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to see if there is any evidence of disease in the brain — a common area of metastasis — and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to see whether the cancer had spread to the bones, adrenal gland, or liver. All of this information helps to stage to cancer, and determine the course of treatment. Below is a basic overview of the lung cancer stages and treatment options.
- Stage one — When a lung cancer is stage one, it means that the cancer is only in the lungs and has not spread to surrounding lymph nodes. Surgery is considered the gold standard of treatment for this stage.
- Stage two — A stage two lung cancer means cancer is in the lung and has spread to at least one lymph node. Surgery to remove a lobe of the lung (a lobectomy) and the affected lymph node is typically the treatment, though in some cases, a doctor may recommend chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery or after surgery to reduce the chance of a recurrence.
- Stage three — Stage three lung cancer has two subtypes — 3A and 3B. A 3A diagnosis means that cancer has spread to the lymph nodes on the same side of the chest that the cancer started. A 3B diagnosis means lymph nodes on the opposite side of the chest, or the ones above the colar bone, have been affected. For stage 3A lung cancer, treatment can be a bit of a gray zone. Some doctors may recommend using chemotherapy and radiation before surgery to shrink the tumor, while others may want to remove an entire lung. For stage 3B, chemotherapy with or without radiation is the standard of care — though surgery may be used in some cases as well.
- Stage four — A stage four lung cancer means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, brain, or liver. Although stage four is considered advanced lung cancer, there are treatment options to consider — such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, as well as newer targeted drugs and immunotherapy agents.