Lung cancer overview
If you recently found out you have lung cancer, remember – you’re not alone. About 220,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.95
While lung cancer is a serious condition, when diagnosed at an early stage and when the cancer has not spread, it can be one of the most treatable types of cancers. But, what will it mean for you and your family?
One of the first steps in fighting lung cancer is to arm yourself with knowledge – learn as much as you can about the disease and how it’s treated. This will help you have conversations with your doctor.
For many, surgery is the most effective treatment for early stage non-small cell lung cancers. If surgery is an option, know the various surgical methods that can be used, and how they can impact your recovery.
We’ve created this website to provide an overview of lung cancer and treatment options; questions you can ask your doctors and additional resources for you and your family. You can also learn more about types of lung surgery by visiting the Treatment Options section.
What is lung cancer?
The lungs are in the chest cavity and provide oxygen to the body. The right lung is made up of three lobes, the upper, middle, and lower lobes; and the left lung is made up of two lobes, the upper and the lower lobes. Cancer occurs when there is uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. Cancerous cells don’t develop into healthy tissue; instead they may form tumors and prevent the lung from functioning normally.
Some people experience symptoms with early stage lung cancer. If you go to your doctor when you first notice symptoms, your cancer may be diagnosed at an earlier stage, when treatment is more likely to be effective. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:
- A lingering cough or a cough that gets worse
- Chest pain that may worsen with deep breathing, coughing or laughing
- Sudden weight loss and loss of appetite
- Coughing up blood-streaked mucus
- Increasing shortness of breath, wheezing
- Feeling tired or weak
- Chronic infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia
While there numerous types of lung cancer, the two primary types are:
- Small cell cancer: The cells of small cell lung cancer appear smaller than those in healthy tissue when viewed under a microscope. About 1 out of every 8 people with lung cancer has small cell lung cancer. This is usually an aggressive form of cancer.
Treatment may include cancer-killing drugs (chemotherapy) potentially combined with high-powered x-rays (radiation therapy). In rare cases, surgery may be considered.
- Non-small cell cancer: Approximately 7 out of every 8 people diagnosed with lung cancer have non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer cells are larger than those of small cell lung cancer. The cancer doesn’t grow and spread as quickly as small cell lung cancer, and it can be treated differently.
Surgery is the most effective treatment for early stage non-small cell lung cancers, depending on the location of the tumor.
There are three types of non-small cell lung cancer named for the kinds of cells and how they appear under a microscope. Although the cells appear different, the treatment and prognosis are very similar for all three:
- Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the squamous cells – thin and flat cells that look like fish scales. This is also called epidermoid carcinoma.
- Large cell carcinoma may begin in several types of large cells.
- Adenocarcinoma begins in the cells that line the alveoli and produce secretions such as mucus.
Based on the results of your diagnostic tests and clinical evaluations by your care team, your cancer is “staged,” to determine the extent of the cancer and develop the appropriate care path.
Staging lung cancer is based on tumor size; the tumor’s invasion of neighboring tissue such as the chest wall or bronchus and if lung cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes and/or other parts of the body.Staging Chart
If you have symptoms, or a health history that might suggest you may have lung cancer, your doctor will prescribe diagnostic testing such as: chest x-ray, CT (computer-based tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or PET scans for more detailed images; scans or ultrasound imaging.
Other diagnostic testing, such as bronchoscopy, help doctors locate tumors in airways of the lung. Endoscopic esophageal and endobronchial ultrasound use sound waves to provide images of both lung tissue and surrounding lymph nodes.
A mediastinoscopy or mediastinotomy, performed under general anesthesia in an operating room, allow your doctor to sample and examine tissues under direct visualization or to retrieve small tissue samples that are sent to pathology for analysis.
Further testing, such as a brain MRI, may be performed both before and after your diagnosis to determine if the cancer has responded to treatment or if it has spread beyond the lungs.
Once a diagnosis has been made, additional tests including a lung function test will be performed to determine if you are a candidate for thoracic surgery.