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Understanding Lung Cancer

While a lung cancer diagnosis is frightening, we want you to know you're not alone. At UnityPoint Health Cancer Services – Methodist, you'll find comfort and support every step of the way.

There are promising therapies for advanced stages and aggressive types of cancer. We work quickly to understand the cancer stage. We aim to start treatment as soon as possible and give you more treatment options.

What is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is an overgrowth of abnormal cells that starts in the lungs. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 228,000 people yearly receive a lung cancer diagnosis.

Sometimes cancer spreads to the lungs from other cancerous organs. You may hear this condition called secondary lung cancer. Doctors usually treat these cancer cells based on where they first formed, such as in the breast, kidneys or skin.

How the Lungs Work

Your lungs are 2 sponge-like organs in your chest. Your right lung is larger and has 3 sections, called lobes. Your right lung has 2 lobes. Your trachea, or windpipe, carries air into your body.

Your lungs are responsible for absorbing oxygen when you inhale and getting rid of carbon dioxide when you exhale. When you inhale, your lungs absorb oxygen into your blood. When you exhale, your lungs remove carbon dioxide from your blood.

How Lung Cancer Develops

Lung cancers usually start in the lining of tiny parts of your lungs (the bronchi, bronchioles or alveoli). Cancerous cells mutate or change and begin to grow abnormally. These mutated cells can cause problems with breathing or heart function. They can spread to other parts of the body.

This abnormal growth can occur because of smoking or exposure to smoke. Chemical and air pollution exposure can also start cancer. Sometimes people inherit cell mutations. In other cases, doctors don't know why cells change.

Lung Cancer Survival

People with lung cancer are living longer, fuller lives than in the past, and deaths due to lung cancer are declining. These improvements have happened in part because of advances in lung cancer screening and treatment.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

In the early stages of lung cancer, symptoms might be as mild as a slight cough or shortness of breath. These symptoms may get worse over time. Other lung cancer symptoms include:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Pain in the chest or back
  • Hoarseness or wheezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

What Are the Types of Lung Cancer?

There are two main types of cancer, non-small cell and small cell lung cancer. Doctors treat these cancer types differently. The two cancer types are:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC): This cancer is the most common type, making up more than 80% of cases. These cancers are associated with smoking, although there are many other causes. Non-small cell lung cancer can grow slowly and people sometimes don't notice symptoms.
  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC): This type of cancer grows quickly. Smoking is the primary risk factor. About 10% to 15% of people with lung cancer have small cell lung cancer.
  • Other lung tumors: Rare types of cancer make up less than 5% of lung cancer cases. These include lung carcinoid tumors, which usually grow slowly.
  • Cancers that have spread to the lungs: Called secondary lung cancers, these cancers originate elsewhere in your body. Doctors treat secondary cancer like the original cancer. Breast cancer that spreads to the lungs, for example, is treated as breast cancer.

What Are Lung Cancer Stages?

Doctors look at many factors when determining the lung cancer stage. Staging tests tell doctors the location of cancer cells and how far they have spread from the lungs. Staging helps doctors make treatment recommendations.

Your cancer navigator team helps you set up appointments and tests to complete staging as quickly as possible. Lung cancer stages are:

  • Stage I: Cancer has not spread outside the lung.
  • Stage II: Cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the lung.
  • Stage III: Cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the middle of the chest.
  • Stage IV: Cancer is present in both lungs, the body around the lungs or other organs.

How Is Lung Cancer Treated?

It's important to remember that many new lung cancer treatments are available today. Once your care team has completed staging and testing, we'll work with you to develop a lung cancer treatment plan. You can also connect with our cancer support services, including support groups, counseling and community resources.

Learn More About Lung Cancer

Contact Us

Get the cancer support services you need, easily. Call 309-672-4224 to connect with one of our helpful cancer navigators.