Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. Your lungs are two spongy organs in your chest that take in oxygen when you inhale and release carbon dioxide when you exhale.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, among both men and women. Lung cancer claims more lives each year than do colon, prostate, ovarian and breast cancers combined.
People who smoke have the greatest risk of lung cancer. The risk of lung cancer increases with the length of time and number of cigarettes you've smoked. If you quit smoking, even after smoking for many years, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing lung cancer.
One fourth of all people with lung cancer have no symptoms when the cancer is diagnosed. These cancers are usually identified incidentally when a chest X-ray is performed for another reason. The other three fourths of people develop some symptoms. The symptoms are due to direct effects of the primary tumor; to effects of cancer spread to other parts of the body (metastases); or to disturbances of hormones, blood, or other systems.
Symptoms of lung cancer include cough, coughing up blood or rusty-colored phlegm, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, recurrent respiratory infections, hoarseness, new wheezing, and shortness of breath.
A new cough in a smoker or a former smoker should raise concern for lung cancer.
A cough that does not go away or gets worse over time should be evaluated by a health care provider.
Coughing up blood (hemoptysis) occurs in a significant number of people who have lung cancer. Any amount of coughed-up blood should be evaluated by a health care provider.
Pain in the chest area is a symptom in about one fourth of people with lung cancer. The pain is dull, aching, and persistent.
Shortness of breath usually results from a blockage in part of the lung, collection of fluid around the lung (pleural effusion), or the spread of tumor through the lungs.
Wheezing or hoarseness may signal blockage or inflammation in the lungs that may go along with cancer.
Repeated respiratory infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, can be a sign of lung cancer.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
If you smoke and have been unable to quit, make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can recommend strategies for quitting smoking, such as counseling, medications and nicotine replacement products.
Smoking causes the majority of lung cancers — both in smokers and in people exposed to secondhand smoke. But lung cancer also occurs in people who never smoked and in those who never had prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke. In these cases, there may be no clear cause of lung cancer.
How smoking causes lung cancer
Doctors believe smoking causes lung cancer by damaging the cells that line the lungs. When you inhale cigarette smoke, which is full of cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), changes in the lung tissue begin almost immediately.
At first your body may be able to repair this damage. But with each repeated exposure, normal cells that line your lungs are increasingly damaged. Over time, the damage causes cells to act abnormally and eventually cancer may develop.
Treatment & Drugs
In some cases you may choose not to undergo treatment. For instance, you may feel that the side effects of treatment will outweigh the potential benefits. When that's the case, your doctor may suggest comfort care to treat only the symptoms the cancer is causing, such as pain or shortness of breath.
During surgery your surgeon works to remove the lung cancer and a margin of healthy tissue. Procedures to remove lung cancer include:
Wedge resection to remove a small section of lung that contains the tumor along with a margin of healthy tissue
Segmental resection to remove a larger portion of lung, but not an entire lobe
Lobectomy to remove the entire lobe of one lung
Pneumonectomy to remove an entire lung
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. One or more chemotherapy drugs may be given through a vein in your arm (intravenously) or taken orally. A combination of drugs usually is given in a series of treatments over a period of weeks or months, with breaks in between so that you can recover.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be directed at your lung cancer from outside your body (external beam radiation) or it can be put inside needles, seeds or catheters and placed inside your body near the cancer (brachytherapy).
Lifestyle & Home Remedies
To cope with shortness of breath, it may help to:
Try to relax. Feeling short of breath can be scary. But fear and anxiety only make it harder to breathe. When you begin to feel short of breath, try to manage the fear by choosing an activity that helps you relax. Listen to music, imagine your favorite vacation spot, meditate or say a prayer.
Find a comfortable position. It may help to lean forward when you feel short of breath.
Focus on your breath. When you feel short of breath, focus your mind on your breathing. Instead of trying to fill your lungs with air, concentrate on moving the muscles that control your diaphragm. Try breathing through pursed lips and pacing your breaths with your activity.
Save your energy for what's important. If you're short of breath, you may become tired easily. Cut out the nonessential tasks from your day so that you can save your energy for what needs to be done.