Lung Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the lungs. The lungs are two spongy organs found in the chest. It takes in oxygen when you inhale and releases carbon dioxide when you exhale.

According to statistics, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the whole world. Although the individuals that smoke have the greatest risk of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer can still occur in people who have never smoked. This is especially true for the Asian countries like Singapore.

The risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes and the length of time you have been smoking. If you quit smoking, even if you have been smoking for years, you can still reduce your chances of developing cancer significantly.

Typically, lung cancer does not manifest signs and symptoms in its early stage. Signs and symptoms typically occur when the disease is in the advanced stage. Signs and symptoms that point to lung cancer may include:

  • Cough that does not go away
  • Chest pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Headache
  • Bone pain
  • Drastic weight loss

Visit your doctor right away when you notice any of the signs and symptoms mentioned above. If you have been smoking and you find it hard to quit, make an appointment with your doctor. They can recommend strategies that can help you quit the habit such as medications, nicotine replacement products, and counseling.

Majority of lung cancers are attributed to smoking—both in smokers and those individuals exposed to secondhand smoke. However, lung cancer has also developed in those who have never smoked at all. In such  cases, there is no clear cause of the condition except genetic tendency to develop lung cancer. Some other causes that are known to cause lung cancer are exposure to asbestos, coal, ceramic, glass manufacturing, printing etc.

Doctors believe that smoking damages the cells that line the lungs. When cigarette smoke is inhaled, changes in the lung tissue begins almost immediately. Cigarettes are believed to be full of cancer-causing substances also called carcinogens.

The body may be able to repair the damage at first. However, with repeated and continued exposure, increased damage is done to the normal cells that line the lungs. Over time, the damaged cells can act abnormally and cancer may develop.

Lung cancer is divided into two major kinds based on how the lung cancer cells appear under the microscope. Your doctor makes treatment decisions based on the major type of cancer you have. The two general lung cancer types are:

Small cell lung cancer

This type of cancer occurs almost exclusively in individuals that are heavy smokers. It is less common compared to non-small cell lung cancer.

Non-small cell lung cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer is an umbrella term that’s used to refer to several types of lung cancers. Non-small cell lung cancers include large cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma out of which adenocarcinoma is the most commonly developing lung cancer worldwide.

Risk Factors

Several factors can increase one’s risk of developing lung cancer. Some risk factors may be controlled by quitting smoking. Other factors cannot be controlled like your family history. Some of the risk factors for cancer include:

  • Smoking – Risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked each day as well as the number of years you have been smoking. The good thing is quitting can significantly lower one’s risk of developing the condition.
  • Previous radiation therapy – Those who have undergone radiation therapy to the chest for another kind of cancer have a greater chance of developing lung cancer.
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke – Even if you are not a smoker, your risk of developing lung cancer increases if you’re exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Family history of lung cancer – Those with parents or siblings with lung cancer have an increased chance of developing the condition.
  • Exposure to radon gas – Radon is produced during the natural breakdown of water, rock, and soil. It eventually becomes part of the air you breathe. Unsafe levels of radon may sometimes accumulate in buildings, including homes.
  • Exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens – Workplace exposure to asbestos as well as other carcinogens like nickel, chromium, or arsenic can increase one’s risk of developing lung cancer.

If your doctor suspects you have cancer, a number of tests may be ordered to look for cancerous cells and so other conditions can be ruled out. Some of the tests may include:

  • Imaging tests – An X-ray image of the lungs may reveal an abnormal nodule or mass. A CT scan can reveal small lesions on the lungs that might not be evident on X-rays.
  • Sputum cytology – If you have a cough that produces sputum, looking at the sputum under the microscope may reveal the presence of lung cancer cells.
  • Tissue sample – A sample of normal cells may be removed in a procedure called biopsy.

Careful analysis of the cancer cells in the lab can reveal the type of lung cancer you have. Results of sophisticated testing may also reveal the specific characteristics of the cells. This can help determine the prognosis as well as guide the treatment.

First step in deciding the type of treatment is identifying the stage of lung cancer. You and your doctor will create a cancer treatment plan that’s based on a number of factors including the cancer type,stage, your overall health, and your preferences. In some cases, you have the option not to undergo treatment. For instance, you might feel the side effects of the treatment might outweigh any potential benefits.

During surgery, the surgeon will remove the lung cancer as well as a margin of healthy tissue. Some of the procedures done to remove lung cancer can include:

  • Wedge resection – This is done to remove a small section of the lung that has the tumour along with a margin of healthy tissue
  • Segmental resection – This is done to remove a larger portion of the lung but not the entire lobe
  • Pneumonectomy – This is done to remove an entire lung
  • Lobectomy – This is done to remove the entire lobe of one lung

Surgery can be an option if the cancer is confined to the lungs. If the patient has a larger lung cancer, radiation or chemotherapy may be recommended before the surgery to shrink the cancer. If there is a risk of cancer cells being left behind after surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be ordered after the surgery.

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