Understanding Signs, Symptoms, and Therapies for Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a growing problem throughout the United States, and it remains one of the most prevalent types of cancer in the world. According to recent statistics, over 200,000 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed annually. This means lung cancer makes up about 13% of all cancer diagnoses in the US. It has been estimated that the total cost of lung cancer treatment each year could rise to approximately $14 billion.

Given how staggering lung cancer statistics can be, it’s not unreasonable to have questions regarding its diagnosis. Although there’s no cure for cancer, spotting its signs and symptoms early can drastically improve survival rates amongst those affected by it. We’ve set out to concisely answer all your questions regarding lung cancer, because early detection can make all the difference. The sections that follow have been written with that in mind.

What Is Lung Cancer?

As with any type of cancer, lung cancer involves the uncontrolled growth of abnormal or cancerous cells. These malignant cells within the lungs grow at a rate much faster than normal, eventually leading to the development of tumors or solid masses in the lung tissue. Once they’ve formed, these tumors continue to get larger over time. As they grow, they can interfere with and damage the normal functions of the lungs. This generally results in bothersome or uncomfortable symptoms that may urge the patient to see their physician for a proper diagnosis.

Signs and Symptoms

There are many symptoms that can be present with the development of lung cancer. The following are some of the most commonly reported lung cancer symptoms:

  • Chronic cough
  • Dull or sharp pain in the chest or ribs
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Frequent upper respiratory infections

As with most health concerns, these symptoms can also be caused by many other conditions. Therefore, it is important to see your physician if symptoms persist without the presence of an obvious cause for them. As far as the causes of lung cancer, the risk factors mentioned above can influence the degree of risk an individual might face. In many cases, the true cause of the disease is never learned.

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Who’s at Risk of Developing Lung Cancer?

Risk factors include anything that may increase an individual’s chances of developing a specific condition. As with any other disease or medical condition, there are many risk factors associated with the development of lung cancer. Some of the most common risk factors include the following:

Smoking or Being Exposed to Second-Hand Smoke

Exposure to cigarette and cigar smoke drastically increase the risk of developing lung cancer. This is true even if the exposure is second-hand. Tobacco products contain a wide variety of chemicals and compounds that can lead to the development of damaged and cancerous cells.

Radon Exposure

Radon exposure can occur naturally through the environment. Radon is a clear and odorless gas that is naturally present in soil and rock formations. In some cases, it can seep into homes or other buildings, resulting in people being unaware that they are being exposed to this carcinogenic gas. While small amounts may not be that dangerous, continued exposure can increase an individual’s risk of developing lung cancer and other pulmonary diseases.

Arsenic and Asbestos Exposure

Arsenic and asbestos are two other compounds that have been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer. The risk of mesothelioma, a specific type of lung cancer, is most heavily associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a product that was previously used in building materials. Therefore, many people were inadvertently exposed to it in some manner in the past. Old buildings and factories continue to be a potential asbestos hazard – especially if disturbed.

Family History or Genetic Factors

Unfortunately, we don’t fully understand the impact genes can have on the development of lung cancer. We do know that having a family member who has suffered from lung cancer seems to raise an individual’s risk of developing it at some point, but there is still some uncertainty regarding that likelihood.

Previous Radiation Treatment to the Chest Area

Those who have been treated with radiation therapy to the chest also have an increased risk of developing lung cancer. For example, women with breast cancer who are treated with radiation tend to have a slightly increased risk of developing lung cancer later in life.

When considering these risk factors, it is important to understand that having one or more does not guarantee you will develop lung cancer. Additionally, a person with no risk factors can still develop the disease. This indicates that there is still some uncertainty around the development of lung cancer.

What are the Different Types of Lung Cancer?

There are different types of lung cancer, which can make the process of learning about this disease a little more complex. The most common type of this disease is called non-small cell lung cancer. It makes up as much as 85% of all lung cancer diagnoses. Non-small cell lung cancer tends to grow and spread more slowly than its counterparts.

Small cell lung cancer makes up about 20% of all lung cancer diagnoses. This type of lung cancer gets its name because the cells making up the tumors are smaller than most other cancer cells tend to be. Unfortunately, small cell lung cancer tends to grow and spread much more rapidly.

Non-small cell lung cancer can be further subdivided into different types. These include adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma, and neuroendocrine tumors. Finally, mesothelioma and carcinoid tumors can also develop in the lungs.

What are the Different Stages of Lung Cancer?

When a patient is diagnosed with lung cancer, a biopsy will normally reveal the exact type of the disease. Using the sample provided, further testing will be done to determine the stage of the disease. The stage refers to the degree to which the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Your physician will use the letters T, N, and M to properly describe the stage of your cancer. The measurements are as follows:

T – This measurement describes the size of your tumor and its location in your body.

N – This measurement describes node involvement, if any exists.

M – This measurement describes more distant spread, if it has occurred.

Your physician will likely use a number of sophisticated scans that can see into your body in order to determine the exact stage of your cancer and thus the recommended treatment protocol for your type and stage.

What are the Common Treatment Options for Lung Cancer?

Treatment options for lung cancer will vary widely based on the type and stage of the illness at the time of diagnosis. No matter what type or stage of cancer is present, treatment usually involves surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. This surgery can then be followed by chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of both.

Some of the most common treatments used to combat lung cancer include the following:

  • Carboplatin and Cisplatin are some of the most common types of chemotherapy drugs used to treat lung cancer.
  • Gemzar and Taxotere are also commonly used chemotherapy agents used for lung cancer treatment.
  • Anti-angiogenesis therapy focuses on attempting to stop blood flow to the tumor so that it will stop growing.
  • EGFR Inhibitors are drugs that block specific compounds known as epidermal growth factor receptor. These drugs can sometimes slow down or stop the growth of the tumor.
  • Radiation is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor. In many cases, radiation may be used prior to surgically removing the tumor since shrinking it first can help ensure complete removal.
  • Immunotherapy can also be used to help the body learn to better fight the cancer on its own. Immunotherapy involves boosting the immune system, which is the body’s natural defense against illness and disease. Drugs can be used to help the immune system identify, target, and eradicate cancer cells.

While lung cancer is a common illness, being diagnosed with it can be a troubling and frightening time for many patients and their loved ones. Arming yourself with knowledge is one of the best ways to alleviate your fears. While much research is still needed on the topic of lung cancer, the information above is a great starting point for learning about this condition and the various treatment protocols available for it.