Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer in the United States, yet it is the number one cause of cancer deaths among Americans. The five-year survival rate for all types of lung cancer is only 21%, which means approximately one out of five people diagnosed with lung cancer live five years or longer after receiving their diagnosis.
Several factors, including the stage of the disease and the subtype, can greatly affect survival rates.
The good news is that new lung cancer cases have been declining steadily since the mid-1980s. Research credits the decline to the fact that fewer people are smoking. There have also been significant advancements in detection and treatment.
The AnMed Health Cancer Center provides diagnostic and treatment services as well as whole-person support to patients, their loved ones and lung cancer survivors.
What is lung cancer?
Lung cancer is cancer that begins in the cells of the lungs. Cancer that originates in the lungs and spreads (metastasizes) to another area of the body, such as the pancreas, is still referred to as lung cancer.
Your lungs are sponge-like organs located in the chest. Their main function is to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. When you breathe in, air enters through your mouth and nose and goes into your lungs through your windpipe. Your windpipe divides into tubes called the bronchi, which divide into smaller branches called the bronchioles.
At the end of the bronchioles, there are tiny air sacs known as alveoli. The alveoli absorb oxygen into your blood from the air as you breathe in and remove carbon dioxide from the blood when you exhale.
Lung cancers typically start in the cells that line the bronchi or in parts of the lung such as the bronchioles or alveoli. Lung cancer cells can enter lymphatic vessels and begin to grow in lymph nodes around the bronchi and in the area between the two lungs.
When lung cancer cells have reached the lymph nodes, they are more likely to spread to other organs of the body, as well. The extent of the cancer and decisions about treatment are often based on whether it has spread to the nearby lymph nodes or not.
Types of lung cancer
There are two main types of lung cancer. Roughly 10% to 15% of all lung cancers are classified as small cell lung cancer (SCLC), named for the size of the cancer cells when seen under a microscope. About 85% to 90% of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Within these two categories, there are several subtypes, some of which are rare forms of lung cancer.
Small cell lung cancers start in the cells lining the bronchi, the bronchioles or the alveoli. There are two subtypes of SCLC: small-cell carcinoma and combined small-cell carcinoma.
Small cell lung cancer tends to grow rapidly and spread quickly. However, it also responds well to chemotherapy, radiation therapy and medications designed to kill cancer cells.
There are three main subtypes of NSCLC: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma. Adenocarcinoma is a lung cancer variant that often affects non-smokers.
The word “carcinoma” describes a specific type of cancer that starts in the skin or the tissues that line the internal organs. There are two rare subtypes of NSCLC called sarcomatoid carcinoma and adenosquamous carcinoma.
The cells in each of these subtypes differ in size, shape and chemical make-up.
Causes and risk factors of lung cancer
The leading cause of both SCLC and NSCLC is smoking. Breathing secondhand smoke regularly increases the risk of developing lung cancer. In fact, those who have long-term exposure to secondhand smoke are at a 60% higher risk of developing small cell lung cancer.
Prolonged exposure to carcinogenic substances, such as asbestos, can also cause lung cancer. For non-smokers, however, the cause of cancer is often unknown.
There are some risks related to lung cancer that you can control by improving your health habits or quitting smoking. Other factors, such as family history, cannot be changed.
In addition to smoking and genetics, the risks for developing lung cancer increase with the following factors:
- Exposure to radon gas
- Undergoing radiation therapy
- Exposure to asbestos
- Exposure to carcinogens such as chromium, nickel and arsenic
People who have a sibling, parent or child that has been diagnosed with lung cancer are at greater risk and should consider regular cancer screenings as recommended by their doctors.
How lung cancer is diagnosed
Detecting lung cancer in its early stages is difficult because it spreads quickly. Many lesions are hard to see or reach.
Traditionally, when doctors identify a suspicious lesion, they perform a bronchoscopy, a needle biopsy or a major surgery to remove a section of the lung. But as technology advances, the tools available to help doctors diagnose and treat lung cancer have improved.
AnMed Health offers the Veran SPiN Drive®, which uses the lung’s natural airways as roadways to lead to a lesion found deep inside the lungs.
Similar to the GPS system in a car, the SPiN Drive enables physicians to locate and biopsy a lesion without ever leaving the airway. The SPiN Drive system can reach further into the lungs than a traditional bronchoscope, proving a quicker diagnosis and better treatment options.
Lung cancer screenings
Imaging tests are used to help locate and diagnose lung cancer, as well as to determine whether and where it has spread. The same screenings are used to learn how cancer is responding to treatment.
These imaging tests include:
- X-rays: High energy electromagnetic waves are used to produce images of the body’s structures
- CT scans: A specialized type of computer-enhanced X-ray that combines several pictures to offer a detailed image
- MRI: Uses magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of body parts, especially soft tissues
- PET scans: A special camera used to detect radioactivity after a radioactive isotope has been injected into the blood
- Bone scans: A test that uses nuclear imaging to diagnose and track diseases of the bones, including cancer
Preventative screenings are not generally recommended for people who are at low or moderate risk for lung cancer. If you are considered high risk due to age, family history, being a smoker or a combination of risk factors, your doctor may recommend a baseline low-dose CT scan.
Lung cancer testing in Anderson, South Carolina
If the presence of lung cancer is suspected due to a combination of symptoms and imaging, further testing is typically required. Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to learn more about your health:
- Sputum cytology: A mucus sample is examined for the presence of cancer cells
- Thoracentesis: A needle is used to draw fluid from between the ribs and the fluid is checked for cancer
- Needle biopsy: A fine needle is inserted to remove cell samples from the potentially cancerous area
- Bronchoscopy: A flexible tube called a bronchoscope is placed through the mouth into the lungs to take tissue samples
Once testing has provided a clear picture of the cancer, a diagnosis and treatment plan can be developed.
Stages of lung cancer
Staging is the process of finding out how far cancer has spread. To a large extent, your treatment and outlook will depend on the cancer's stage. Staging is also different for the two primary forms of lung cancers.
Staging for SCLC
For small cell lung cancers, most doctors refer to a two-stage system, which divides cancers into the limited stage and extensive stage.
Limited stage cancer usually means that the cancer is only found on one side of the chest. This may include one lung and the lymph nodes on the same side of the chest.
The term “extensive stage” is used to describe cancers that have spread to both lungs, to lymph nodes on both sides of the chest, or to distant organs (including the bone marrow).
Many doctors consider small cell lung cancer that has spread to the fluid around the lung to be in the extensive stage, as well.
Roughly two out of three people with small cell lung cancer have extensive disease when their cancer is first discovered. Small cell lung cancer is often staged in this way because it helps to separate patients who may benefit from more aggressive treatments — such as chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy — to try to cure the cancer.
Staging for NSCLC
The system used to describe the growth and spread of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is based on three key pieces of information:
- T indicates the size of the main (primary) tumor and whether it has grown into nearby areas
- N describes the spread of cancer to nearby lymph nodes
- M indicates whether cancer has metastasized to other organs of the body
Numbers or letters appear after T, N, and M to provide more details about each of these factors. The numbers 0 through 4 indicate increasing severity. The letter X means that it "cannot be assessed because the information is not available."
The TNM staging system is complex and can be difficult to understand. If you have any questions about the stage of your cancer, ask your doctor to explain it to you.
Lung cancer treatment in Anderson
In choosing a treatment plan for small cell lung cancer, one of the most important factors is the stage of the cancer. Depending on the stage of the disease, the main treatment options for people with small cell lung cancer include the following:
- Radiation therapy
If you have small cell lung cancer, your doctor will likely recommend chemotherapy if you are healthy enough. If you have limited stage disease, radiation therapy and surgery (in rare cases) may be options, as well.
Depending on the stage of the disease and other factors, the main treatment options for people with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) may include the following:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
In many cases, more than one of these treatments may be used.
Support services at AnMed Health
Cancer doesn’t just attack the body. It also affects patients mentally, emotionally and spiritually. At AnMed Health, we understand that treating cancer is more than just treating a disease. We treat the whole person. Providing support services is an integral part of that treatment.
Services provided by the AnMed Health Cancer Center include the following:
- Oncology dietician services
- Patient resource coordinators
- Chair yoga classes
- Nurse navigators
The AnMed Health Cancer Learning Center is a place to find free information about cancer for patients, as well as for their friends and family members.
A wide selection of booklets, pamphlets, brochures and journals are available from our “Grab and Go” section. Many educational materials are also available to check out from the Lending Library system.
AnMed Health also provides space for free support groups to meet. Groups are open to family members, caregivers and patients and are led by a health care professional.
Why choose AnMed Health
At AnMed Health, we have a passion for serving others. Our employees and entire medical staff sincerely care about the wellbeing of our patients, each other and the community we serve.
Cancer is experienced differently by everyone it touches, but everyone can benefit from early detection and the innovative treatment options available at AnMed Health.
Our state-of-the-art cancer center provides nationally recognized treatments, diagnostic testing and support.
Wherever you are in your journey, from exploring preventative care to seeking treatments for advanced cancer, AnMed Health has the tools you need to fight back.
Lung Cancer FAQs
What is usually the first sign of lung cancer?
Lung cancer can be difficult to diagnose because it does not always produce noticeable symptoms until the disease has advanced. However, early signs include a persistent cough, wheezing or other changes in breathing, general pain in the back or chest and unexplained weight loss.
How long can you live after being diagnosed with lung cancer?
It’s estimated that 21% of all lung cancer patients live five years or longer after receiving a diagnosis. The specific type of lung cancer that a patient has and how early the disease was caught both have a significant effect on survival rates.
How does lung cancer start?
Lung cancer starts when cells in the lung undergo changes in their genes. These changes can be caused by exposure to cancer-causing agents, your genetic makeup, lifestyle choices or other causes. In many cases, there is no way to tell exactly what caused the cells to change.
Can you have lung cancer and not know it?
Yes, in the early stages of lung cancer, patients can present with few symptoms or none at all. As cancer progresses, warning signs become more obvious. Patients might experience ongoing respiratory problems, pain in the chest, back, or shoulders, coughing up blood and other signs of serious illness.