Lung Cancer

Reviewed: July 18, 2016
By eHealthIQ
Lung Cancer

Overview and Facts

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the tissue of the lungs. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States by a large amount, and it is one of the deadliest cancerous diseases worldwide. There are two types of lung cancer, small cell and non-small cell, which are differentiated only through diligent observation at the microscopic level. Because this type of cancer originates in the lungs, it is commonly classified as an adenocarcinoma, which is the name given to cancers that originate in glandular or secretory cells.

Signs and Symptoms

Because the symptoms and signs for this type of cancer are difficult to differentiate from those that signify different diseases, cancer of the lungs is somewhat difficult to self-diagnose. In fact, symptoms often only reveal themselves after the cancer is relatively advanced. Some classic symptoms are the chronic or “smoker’s” cough that is characteristic of a heavy smoker or nicotine user, chest discomfort and pain, loss of appetite and unexpected weight loss, and bloody mucus expelled from the lungs into the mouth. Rarer symptoms include bone pain and headaches, and in other cases hoarseness and shortness of breath can be symptomatic of a larger problem.

Causes and Diagnosis

The causes of lung cancer are myriad, but in most cases it appears to be caused by long-term cigarette and cigar-smoking habits. Smoking regularly for a number of years appears to damage the cells lining the lungs, which weakens them and makes them susceptible to many different diseases. Carcinogens, which have become known in the medical industry and profession as cancer-causing substances, affect the lung tissue in a number of ways. Small cell lung cancer, which is extremely aggressive and fairly rare, occurs almost exclusively in the bodies of current or former smokers. However, various lung cancers have been found in patients with no history of smoking and no history of prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke; medical researchers are unsure of the cause of these ailments, and have not been able to discern the reasons behind the cells’ abnormal behavior.

Diagnosing this type of cancer is not difficult, but because symptoms only reveal themselves in later stages, it is widely recommended that people at risk go in for a cancer screening annually. Doctors have a number of different testing options at their disposal: many simply start with a physical exam and patient history, in order to determine level of exposure to smoke and cancer risk level. They can then order imaging tests such as chest X-rays or computerized topography (CT) scans to check cell activity in the lungs. The doctor may also take a tissue sample by using a biopsy method.

Tests and Treatments

After the initial diagnosis, the doctor will employ magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans to determine the stage that the disease is at. Determining the stage that the cancer is at is very important for determining which treatment options are still available and sensible. Bone scans may also be used to determine whether the cancer is at stage I, which is the least serious stage, stage II, stage III, or stage IV. In stage IV, the cancer has spread beyond the lungs to other parts of the body and the disease is likely fatal.

The standard treatment for lung cancer is a combination of surgical approaches, targeted drug therapy, and chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Surgery targets the affected cells for removal, and may also involve removal of the lymph nodes in order to protect against possible cancerous cells taking root in them. Radiation therapy uses intense beams of radiation to kill unhealthy cells, whereas chemotherapy uses drug treatments to destroy these same cells. Several clinical trials that seek to test more advanced or controversial cures are also ongoing — many patients choose to participate in these if their cancer is aggressive or failing to respond to traditional treatments.

Tips and Home Remedies

Many home remedies concentrate on improving breath capacity and dealing with chronic shortness of breath. These remedies include breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and non-stressful yoga or meditation practices. Regular exercise and maintenance of a healthy diet can help mitigate risk factors such as exposure to secondhand smoke. Even if smokers have maintained the habit for their entire lives, quitting cigarettes cancels out a massive risk factor and can help people avoid cancer entirely. Palliative care and alternative medicine also provide several interesting avenues for cancer patients who are in great amounts of pain or feel that traditional treatments are not benefiting them.

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