Introduction to Lung Cancer
Lung cancer can be found in your lungs, as well as your mouth, nose and breathing pipe (trachea).
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK with 120 people are diagnosed with lung cancer each day. Lung cancer can be found in your lungs, as well as your mouth, nose and breathing pipe (trachea). Lung cancer can be a term which includes cancers initially found in the lung and surrounding area (primary) and cancers from other parts of the body which have spread to the lungs (secondary). Lung cancer in this article refers primary lung cancers. Primary lung cancers can be divided into two types: small-cell lung cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer. These cancers originate from different cells and have different rates of growth and so are treated differently.
Lung cancer mainly affects older people with 4 in 10 cases diagnosed in those over 75 years. Those who smoke are at a greater risk of developing lung cancer but there are cases where people who don’t smoke also develop lung cancer.
What causes Lung Cancer?
Smoking is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer and 85% of cases of primary lung cancer are in people who smoke/used to smoke. The increased risk from smoking is due to the great number of toxins present in tobacco and so those who chew tobacco, use cigars, pipe tobacco and snuff are also at a greater risk of getting lung cancer.
Frequent exposure to other people’s tobacco smoke (passive smoking) can increase your risk of developing lung cancer as toxins can still be inhaled this way.
Other substances such as, arsenic, asbestos and silica may also cause lung cancer. These are often found in industrial settings and so those with certain occupations may be at a higher risk of developing lung cancer.
Pollution and radon in the air can also cause lung cancer but in the UK, radon only causes 3% of lung cancers and pollution only posses a small risk.
What are the symptoms of Lung Cancer?
Often in the early stages of the disease, there are few signs or symptoms. If you have had a persistent cough for three or more weeks or your cough is bloody you should go and see your GP. Persistent chest infections, aches and pains when coughing or persistent breathlessness can all also be symptoms of lung cancer. It is worth noting however that these can also be symptoms of other respiratory infections and not just specific to lung cancer.
Other symptoms which are less common include a high temperature, difficulty swallowing, chest or shoulder pain and a horse or wheezing voice.
How is Lung Cancer treated?
Since primary lung cancer is split into two subtypes, the treatment plan for each is slightly different.
Non-small-cell lung cancer: If the condition is diagnosed early, and the cancerous cells are confined to a small area in one lung, removal of the affected area by surgery is the normal form of treatment. The decision for a person to undergo surgery is also dependent on their general health. Therefore, if you are unwell, surgery may be too risky and so radiotherapy is used to destroy the cancerous cells. If the disease has progressed and radiotherapy would not be very effective, chemotherapy is usually used. If the cancer starts to grow again after initial treatment, another course of chemotherapy may be given.
Small-cell lung cancer: This type of cancer is harder to diagnose early and has often spread to other areas of the body. Therefore, surgery is an unsuitable form of treatment. Instead small-cell lung cancer is usually treated by chemotherapy alone or in combination with radiotherapy. If it is diagnosed early, surgery may be used and chemotherapy and radiotherapy given after to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.
Depending on how far the cancer has spread, different surgical procedures can be used to remove it. Early stage non-small-cell lung carcinomas can be removed in a segmentectomy where only a small part of the lung is removed. If the cancer has taken up more of the lung larger parts (lobes) of the lung will be removed in a lobectomy. The entire lung may be removed in a pneumonectomy if the cancer is located in the middle of the lung or has spread throughout the entire lung.