Lung Cancer 101: Risk Factors, Types & Treatments
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with lung cancer, you’re most likely trying to grasp all you can about the disease.
The good news is that the prognosis is better than ever for lung cancer patients. Treatment advances, including minimally invasive surgery and highly targeted therapy to kill cancer cells, offer promising outcomes.
What is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers worldwide. In fact, whether you smoke or don’t, the chance of a man developing lung cancer in his lifetime is about 1 in 14. The odds for a woman are 1 in 17, according to the American Cancer Society.
Lung cancer starts when abnormal, malignant cells form in the tissues of the lungs. This sets off a chain of events in which the cells can bind and form a tumor and can also spread to other parts of the body.
When patients receive a lung cancer diagnosis, they will have one of two forms:
- Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC): Up to 85 percent of lung cancers fall into this category, according to the American Cancer Society. Several different types of lung cancers and lung tumors are considered NSCLC.
- Small-Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC): This accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of lung cancers. It grows quickly and spreads outside of the lungs faster than NSCLC. Smoking is the number one risk factor.
Primary lung cancer starts in the lungs. When other types of cancer spread to the lungs, it’s known as metastatic disease.
- Regular exposure to second-hand smoke
- Family history of lung cancer in a parent, sibling or multiple relatives
- Environmental or occupational exposure to carcinogens, which are cancer causing substances such as asbestos, radon, ionizing radiation, silica and coal.
If you quit smoking, you can make a difference in your health within 12 hours.
Nonsmokers and Lung Cancer
Between 10 and 15 percent of those with lung cancer have never smoked, according to the National Institutes of Health. While we don’t know the exact reason for this, exposure to second-hand smoke, toxins or other carcinogens in the environment can damage the lungs, predisposing them to developing cancer. Lung cancer in never smokers tends to occur more often in women and those who are younger.
Lung Cancer Treatment
There are three primary treatments for lung cancer surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
- Surgery: In the early stages of lung cancer, tumors are often small enough to be taken out surgically with a goal of cure.
Surgery often involves removing the entire lobe of the lung where the tumor is growing. Most people find they don’t even miss that part of the lung and are no more short of breath than before the surgery.
Advances in surgical techniques allow many patients to have minimally invasive surgery, such as video assisted thorascopic surgery (VATS), which uses smaller incisions and cameras to guide the surgeon. This allows for a quicker recovery.
- Radiation: If someone in the early stages of lung cancer is not healthy enough for surgery or they wish to avoid surgery, a precise form of radiation called stereotactic radiosurgery can be used to destroy cancer cells while protecting the surrounding lung tissue.
- Chemotherapy: Those with more advanced cancers that have spread to lymph nodes or other areas of the body, often need what is called “systemic” treatment. Systemic treatments include chemotherapy, medicine that circulates throughout the blood stream to find and kill cancers cells wherever they are hiding. Chemotherapy can work with radiation therapy, which targets areas where higher numbers of tumor cells are growing.
Promising New Treatments
We now have the ability to test tumors for certain biomarkers and gene mutations. If you need systemic therapy and your tumor has one of these markers, you may be able to receive some of the newer treatments available known as targeted therapies and immunotherapies. They are considered a more customized form of treatment and work differently than chemotherapy by either changing how cancer cells grow or boosting your immune system to do a better job of recognizing and destroying them.
We are learning more every day about how to effectively treat lung cancer. With early detection through screening and providing personalized treatment plans, more people are living longer with a diagnosis of lung cancer than ever before.