Frequently Asked Questions About Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is one of the more common cancers diagnosed in the US, and it’s often discovered in a later stage when it’s harder to treat. In 2012, an estimated 226,160 new cases will be diagnosed. About 28% of all cancer deaths in the US are from lung cancer, making it the leading cause of cancer death for men and women.

How much do you know about lung cancer?

Q. What is lung cancer?

A. Lung cancer begins when cells in one or both lungs start to grow out of control. At first, pre-cancerous cells can’t be seen on an x-ray and they don’t cause symptoms. But over time, these cells may progress to true cancer. They may continue to grow and form a tumor large enough to be seen on imaging tests such as x-rays. At some point, cells from the cancer may break away from the original tumor and spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Lung cancer is often a life-threatening disease because it tends to spread in this way even before it can be detected on an imaging test.

There are different types of lung cancer. The most common type is non-small cell lung cancer, which accounts for about 85% to 90% of lung cancers. The other main type is small cell lung cancer, which accounts for about 10% to 15%. Other types, such as lung carcinoid tumors account for less than 5% of lung cancers. The different types are treated very differently.

Q. What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

A. Most cases of lung cancer don’t cause any symptoms until they’ve spread too far to be cured, but symptoms do occur in some people with early lung cancer. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored spit or phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

Most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by conditions other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it's important to see your doctor right away.

Q. How many people get lung cancer?

A. An estimated 226,160 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in 2012 and an estimated 160,340 people will die from lung cancer, making it the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

Q. Do nonsmokers get lung cancer?

A. Tobacco accounts for about 80% of lung cancer deaths. But even though it’s less common, some people who don’t smoke get lung cancer, too. Every year, 16,000 to 24,000 Americans die of lung cancer even though they have never smoked. If lung cancer in nonsmokers had its own category separate from lung cancer in smokers, it would rank among the top 10 fatal cancers in the United States.

Q. Are there screening tests that can find lung cancer early?

A. The idea of screening for lung cancer is appealing, because it has the potential of finding the cancer earlier, when it’s easier to treat. But screening carries risks that may outweigh the benefits for everyone except those at higher than average risk for lung cancer, often heavy smokers.

A type of CT scan known as low-dose spiral CT (or helical CT) has shown some promise in detecting early lung cancers in heavy smokers and former smokers. But a drawback of the scan is that it finds a lot of abnormalities that turn out not to be cancer but that still need to be assessed to be sure. This may lead to additional scans or even more-invasive tests such as needle biopsies or even surgery to remove a portion of lung in some people. A small number of people who do not have cancer or have very early stage cancer have died from these tests. There is also a risk that comes with increased exposure to radiation.

These factors, and others, need to be taken into account by people and their doctors who are considering whether or not screening with spiral CT scans is right for them. The American Cancer Society has interim guidance on lung cancer screening.

Q. What causes lung cancer?

A. Smoking is by far the leading risk factor for lung cancer. About 80% of lung cancer deaths are thought to result from smoking. The longer you smoke and the more packs a day you smoke, the greater your risk.

If you stop smoking before cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue gradually starts to repair itself. No matter what your age or how long you've smoked, quitting may lower your risk of lung cancer and help you live longer.

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 3,000 deaths from lung cancer each year. Other risk factors include exposure to radon gas or asbestos, and a family history of lung cancer.

Q. Can lung cancer be cured?

A. Despite the very serious outlook (prognosis) of lung cancer, some people are cured. More than 350,000 people alive today have been diagnosed with lung cancer at some point.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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