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Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. About 14% of all new cancers are lung cancer. The risk of developing lung cancer is highest in smokers, but many people who do not smoke also develop lung cancer each year. Despite the very serious prognosis (outlook) of lung cancer, some people with earlier stage cancers are cured. More than 430,000 people alive today have been diagnosed with lung cancer at some point.

There are three main types of lung cancer. Knowing which type you have is important because it affects your treatment options and your outlook (prognosis). If you aren't sure which type of lung cancer you have, ask your healthcare provider so you can get the right information.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

This is the most common type of lung cancer. About 85% of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancers. Squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and large cell carcinoma are all subtypes of non-small cell lung cancer.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell lung cancer is also called oat cell cancer. About 10%-15% of lung cancers are small cell lung cancers. This type of lung cancer tends to spread quickly.

Lung Carcinoid Tumor

Fewer than 5% of lung cancers are lung carcinoid tumors. They are also sometimes called lung neuroendocrine tumors. Most of these tumors grow slowly and rarely spread.

Lung Cancer Risk Factors

Cigarette Smoking

Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. About 80% of lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking. The risk for lung cancer among smokers is many times higher than among non-smokers. The longer you smoke and the more packs a day you smoke, the greater your risk.

Secondhand Smoke

If you don't smoke, breathing in the smoke of others can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Secondhand smoke is thought to cause more than 7,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.

Radon Exposure

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rocks. You can't see, taste, or smell it. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in this country, and is the leading cause among non-smokers.

Outdoors, there is so little radon that it is not likely to be dangerous. But indoors, radon can be more concentrated. Breathing it in exposes your lungs to small amounts of radiation. This may increase a person's risk of lung cancer.

Homes and other buildings in nearly any part of the United States can have high indoor radon levels (especially in basements).

Exposure to Asbestos

People who work with asbestos (such as in mines, mills, textile plants, places where insulation is used, and shipyards) are several times more likely to die of lung cancer. Lung cancer risk is much greater in workers exposed to asbestos who also smoke. It's not clear how much low-level or short-term exposure to asbestos might raise lung cancer risk.

People exposed to large amounts of asbestos also have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma, a type of cancer that starts in the pleura (the lining surrounding the lungs). In recent years, government regulations have greatly reduced the use of asbestos in commercial and industrial products. It's still present in many homes and other older buildings, but it's not usually considered harmful as long as it's not released into the air by deterioration, demolition, or renovation.

Exposure to Other Cancer-Causing Agents

Other carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) found in some workplaces that can increase lung cancer risk include:

  • Radioactive ores such as uranium
  • Inhaled chemicals such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, silica, vinyl chloride, nickel compounds, chromium compounds, coal products, mustard gas, and chloromethyl ethers
  • Diesel exhaust

The government and industry have taken steps in recent years to help protect workers from many of these exposures. But the dangers are still there, so if you work around these agents, be careful to limit your exposure whenever possible.

Risk Factors You Cannot Change

  • Previous radiation therapy to the lungs — People who have had radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers are at higher risk for lung cancer, particularly if they smoke.
  • Air pollution — In cities, air pollution (especially near heavily trafficked roads) appears to raise the risk of lung cancer slightly. This risk is far less than the risk caused by smoking, but some researchers estimate that worldwide about 5% of all deaths from lung cancer may be due to outdoor air pollution.
  • Personal or family history of lung cancer — If you have had lung cancer, you have a higher risk of developing another lung cancer. Brothers, sisters, and children of people who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of lung cancer themselves, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a younger age.

Lung Cancer Prevention

The leading cause for lung cancer is cigarette smoking, so it's no wonder that quitting smoking is the first item on our list for preventing this deadly disease. Although it is the best thing you can do to lessen your chances of lung cancer, it is not the only step you can take.

Quit Smoking

Even if you've been a heavy smoker most of your life, quitting smoking can significantly lessen your chances of getting lung cancer.

Avoid Secondhand Smoke

Inhaling secondhand smoke is just as deadly as smoking a cigarette directly. Avoid smoking areas or cars in which people are smoking.

Protect Yourself From Carcinogens at Work

Depending on your line of work, if you are advised to wear a gas mask to avoid chemicals, do so. These precautionary measures are set up by your workplace to help you.

Have Your Home's Radon Levels Checked

If high, a mitigation system may need to be installed to help remove radon gases from your home.

Early detection is critical when trying to stop the spread of lung cancer. Because symptoms don't tend to show themselves until the latest stages, it is important to be proactive about your health from the beginning. If found in its earlier stages, lung cancer treatment sees a significantly higher success rate. Our experts working in our Community Cancer Center are available to help educate and treat the different forms of lung cancers.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of lung cancer tend only to show up when the cancer is in its later stages. Individual symptoms will vary depending on the stage of cancer and where the cancer has metastasized. If any of these symptoms occur, it is important to contact the experts at UnityPoint Health – Allen Hospital Community Cancer Center for guidance and treatment options.

  • Severe cough that won't go away
  • Coughing blood
  • Chest pains
  • Wheezing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent headaches