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About lung cancer

Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States and, by far, the leading cause (25 percent) of cancer deaths. According to the American Cancer Society, 228,820 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2020, and 135,720 deaths will be attributed to the disease, more than colorectal, breast and prostate cancers combined.

The lungs are spongy organs that sit on both sides of the chest. The left lung has two lobes; the right lung has three. When a person inhales, air passes through the windpipe into the lungs, where the oxygen is removed and delivered to the bloodstream. When a person exhales, carbon dioxide is expelled from the body. Like a tree or plant, the lungs have branches called bronchioles, which lead to tiny balloon-like sacs called alveoli. Most lung cancers are considered adenocarcinomas, which form in mucus-secreting glands, such as the alveoli.

What are lung nodules?

Lung nodules, also called pulmonary nodules, are small growths found inside the lung. Most lung nodules are benign and develop no symptoms. In fact, many lung nodules are discovered during chest X-rays or CT scans to diagnose other conditions. Most lung nodules range in size from a little smaller than a marble to about the size of a golf ball. Lung nodules may be caused by an infection, but they may also be caused by smoking tobacco.

Some lung nodules are cancerous tumors, and may grow over time, causing breathing problems and other issues. If a nodule is discovered during an imaging test, your doctor may want to monitor it to see whether it grows or changes shape.

Learn more about rapid lung-nodule diagnoses at CTCA Chicago and CTCA Tulsa

Who gets lung cancer?

As with many cancers, the risk of developing lung tumors increases significantly with age. According to the NCI:

  • More than 90 percent of all new lung cancer cases are diagnosed in people older than 55.
  • The median age of a patient at diagnosis is 70.
  • Men are at a higher risk of developing lung cancer than women.
  • African-Americans are in the highest risk group of developing lung cancer.

Although tobacco smoking significantly increases a person’s risk of developing the lung tumors, people who have never smoked may develop lung cancer, too. Secondhand smoke, exposure to pollutants or asbestos and exposure to radon may increase the risk of developing lung cancer. People with a family history of lung cancer may also have a higher risk.

Get answers to top lung cancer questions

Types of lung cancer

There are two main types of lung cancer:

Non-small cell lung cancer: This type of cancer accounts for 80-90 percent of all lung cancers. Non-small cell lung cancer has several subtypes, but most are adenocarcinomas of the lung. Lung adenocarcinomas account for 30 percent of all non-small cell lung cancers and 40 percent of all lung cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. Adenocarcinomas form in glands and are found in many cancers, including prostate, colorectal and esophageal. Adenocarcinomas of the lung form in the glands that secrete mucus. Symptoms include coughing, bloody sputum and fatigue.

Small cell lung cancer: Ten to 20 percent of lung cancers are small cell lung cancers. This type of lung cancer is most commonly associated with tobacco smoking.

Learn more about lung cancer types

Symptoms of lung cancer

Symptoms of early-stage lung cancer may include a cough, shortness of breath and general fatigue. As the disease develops, symptoms may include:

  • A change or worsening of a chronic cough
  • Coughing or spitting up blood
  • Pain in the chest or back
  • Hoarseness
  • Wheezing

Learn more about lung cancer symptoms

Diagnosing lung cancer

Diagnostic tools for lung cancer are used not only to identify and stage the cancer, but to help identify treatment options and monitor progress during treatments. Diagnostic procedures may include:

  • X-ray
  • Lab tests, including advanced genomic testing
  • Biopsy
  • CT scan, CT angiogram and PET/CT scan
  • Autofluorescence, navigation and/or robotic bronchoscopy

Learn more about diagnostic procedures for lung cancer

Treating lung cancer

Treatment options for lung cancer vary depending on the type and stage of the disease and the needs of the patient. Treatments may include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Interventional pulmonology
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

Learn more about treatment options for lung cancer

Next topic: What are the risk factors for lung cancer?

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