What is Lung Cancer?

By  , Expert Content
May 24, 2012

Lung cancer is a common type of cancer and a leading cause of cancer deaths. It can be in primary or secondary stages. When this cancer originates in the lung, it is called "primary lung cancer", but if it originates elsewhere in the body and spreads to the lungs, it is called “secondary lung cancer”. It is important to differentiate between the two from treatment perspective.

Primary lung cancer can be divided into two main types based on the appearance of cancer cell under a microscope: non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Non-small cell lung cancers are more common than SCLC. The NSCLC form about 80% of lung cancers, while small cell lung cancer accounts for the remaining 20%.


Symptoms of lung cancer can be variable and in early stages, signs and symptoms may not be evident. Hence many lung cancers are diagnosed in later stages. According to studies, about 25% of people with lung cancer may not show any symptoms, and the cancer may be discovered accidentally on a routine chest X-ray or CT scan. Some symptoms which may occur in a person with lung cancer include:

  • Recurrent or persistent cough.  
  • Blood in cough (hemoptysis).
  • Chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Difficulty or discomfort while breathing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Hoarseness of voice.
  • Fever (due to infection in the lung).

Lung cancers in most cases grow rapidly and can spread to the bones, brain or other parts of the body.

Risk factors: Factors which increase a person’s risk of developing lung cancer include:

  • Tobacco smoking (in any form cigarette, cigar, and pipe) is the most important risk factor for any type of lung cancer. Quitting smoking or not smoking are the best ways to prevent lung cancer.
  • Exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke also increases the risk of lung cancer.
  • A family history of lung cancer makes you two times more likely to develop the disease, compared to a person who does not have a relative who has had lung cancer.
  • Environmental radon exposure.
  • Association between air pollution and an increased risk of lung cancer has been observed in some studies.
  • Workplace exposure to irritants and chemicals such as asbestos, arsenic, chromium and nickel at work place increases the risk of lung cancer.


Treatment of lung cancer is influenced by many factors such as:

  • Stage of the cancer (whether it has spread to lymph nodes or other organs).
  • Location and type of tumour.
  • You age and general health (presence of any other serious medical conditions).
  • Your preferences.

As no single treatment works for all patients, treatment is usually a combination of therapies and palliative care.  Treatment options for lung cancer include:

  • Surgery.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Other modes of treatment include immunotherapy, hormone therapy, and gene therapy.

Treatment for lung cancer is not very effective. Prognosis for lung cancer is poor as compared to most other cancers. Even with treatment only about 5-10% of patients with SCLC are able to live five years after diagnosis. Similarly in NSCLC, response to treatment is not good except in smallest of cancers that can be surgically removed.



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