Lung cancer, though largely preventable, claims the lives of at least 150,000 people in the United States each year. While approximately 87 percent of victims develop lung cancer from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, the remainder of victims—an alarming 19,500 people—develop and die from lung cancer not from tobacco but rather from exposure to dangerous substances, such as asbestos, silica dust, radon, and environmental pollutants.
Smoking and Other Causes of Lung Cancer
The above cited lung cancer figures don't account for victims whose cause of lung cancer may have been misidentified: experts believe that thousands of people who were told their lung cancer was caused by smoking in fact developed the disease because of exposure to a toxic substance.
These lung cancer figures also don't take into consideration people who both smoked and were exposed to harmful substances. According to the Mesothelioma Information and Research Group, studies have shown that smoking increases one's risk of asbestos-related lung cancer by a factor of 10, while asbestos exposure alone increases the risk of lung cancer by a factor of five. But when a smoker is exposed to asbestos, he or she increases his or her lung cancer risk factor by about 50 times. Thus, if you have developed lung cancer, smoking might not be to blame.
Common Symptoms of Lung Cancer
The most common symptoms of lung cancer are as follows:
- Persistent cough that worsens over time
- Continual chest pains
- Coughing up or expectorating blood
- Shortness of breath, hoarseness, tightening in the chest
- Recurring pneumonia or bronchitis
- Inflammation of the face and neck
- Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
- Extreme exhaustion
The lung cancer symptoms mentioned above are the most common experienced by lung cancer patients. If you or a loved one is experiencing similar symptoms, or anything abnormal, it is important to visit a physician for testing.
Diagnosing Lung Cancer
If lung cancer is a distinct possibility, the doctor may analyze sputum under a microscope for signs of cancerous cells. A tissue sample from the lungs is necessary for confirmation, however. The sample can be gathered using one of several different procedures:
- Bronchoscopy - A thin tube equipped with a light is inserted in the mouth or nose, passed down through the windpipe, and used to look at the breathing passages. Physicians can also use a bronchoscope to collect small tissue samples.
- Needle aspiration - The insertion of a needle into a tumor in order to withdraw fluid and tissue cells.
- Thoracentesis - Using a needle to extract a sample of the fluid that surrounds the lungs.
- Thoracotomy - Surgery to open the chest cavity is sometimes necessary to diagnose lung cancer.
Staging Lung Cancer
If, upon an analysis of tissue samples, the diagnosis is cancer, the physician will "stage" the disease. This involves determining to which stage of lung cancer the condition has advanced. If the cancer has metastasized to other parts of the body, it will affect the treatment plan. Some of the tests performed to stage lung cancer include: CAT scan, MRI, bone scan, and mediastinoscopy or mediastinotomy (using a scope to view and remove tissue samples from lymph nodes in the chest).
The Stages of Lung Cancer
Early stages of cancer mean that the cancer is restricted to a single organ. A more advanced stage means that the cancer has spread to surrounding organs.
In Stage 0, the cancer is located in an extremely localized area and only affects the first few layers of cells. At this stage, the cancer has not yet progressed beyond the surface lining of a patient's lungs.
In Stage I, the cancer is located only in the patient's lungs and the tissue surrounding the lungs is normal.
In Stage II, the cancer has spread from the lungs and affected the lymph nodes near the lungs.
In Stage III, the cancer has spread to other organs surrounding the lungs, such as the diaphragm and the chest wall. In some cases, the cancer may also spread to separate parts of the lymphatic system.
In Stage IV, the cancer has spread to parts of the body that are not adjacent or near the lungs.
Tests to Determine the Stage of Lung Cancer
There are a number of different tests that enable the doctor to properly determine how much the lung cancer has spread. These tests are covered below.
Computed tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan is conducted by a computer that is connected to an x-ray machine. The scan takes very detailed pictures of the part(s) of the body being evaluated.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): This test utilizes a powerful magnet connected to a computer to take detailed pictures of the part of the body being evaluated.
Radionuclide Scanning: This technique allows the doctor to determine what stage a patient's cancer is in by having her swallow or receive an injection of a low-dose of radioactive material. A special machine will then record the changes in levels of radioactivity in the body.
Bone Scan: This method, during which levels of radioactivity are measured in certain areas of the body, reveals whether cancer has spread to the bones.
Mediastinoscopy/Mediastinotomy: Used to show whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the chest, mediastinoscopy/mediastinotomy requires the doctor to use a bronchoscope to examine the chest and surrounding lymph node, and extract a tissue sample.
Selecting a Lung Cancer Treatment
Using information acquired from tests performed, the physician evaluates different cancer treatment options. Different forms of lung cancer have different stages and the prognosis can vary depending on each particular set of circumstances. In general, the earlier cancer is detected (before it has advanced and spread throughout the body) the better are the chances for successful treatment.
About Lung Cancer and Lung Metastases
Lung cancer is similar to many other forms of cancer. Cancer, which is the uncontrollable division and replication of cells, usually originates in one part of the body. If left untreated most cancer, including lung cancer, may spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body. This spread of lung metastases makes the cancer much more difficult to treat.
Even if other organs are affected by lung metastases, the lung cancer is still considered to be cancer of the organ where it was first found. For example, if the disease initially develops in the lungs but lung metastases spreads it the brain, lymph nodes, or pancreas, it is still considered to be lung cancer.
As cancer cells replicate, they form growths called tumors. These tumors are malignant, meaning that they invade and destroy surrounding healthy cells and tissue. Once lung metastases of cancer cells spread, they can overpower the healthy or non-cancerous tissue in the body, ultimately resulting in death if not properly treated.
Types of Lung Cancer
Tumors in the lungs are divided into two types: non-small lung cancer and small cell lung cancer.
Non-small cell lung cancer is by far the most common type of lung cancer. It spreads slowly and surfaces as one of three varieties: large cell lung cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma. These types tend to remain isolated in the lungs, meaning lung metastases are less common among them.
Conversely, small cell lung cancer is much more aggressive than non-small lung cancer and rapid formation of lung metastases in other organs in the body is likely. Both types are treatable if caught early, but neither is curable.
Other types of lung cancer include pleural mesothelioma, silicosis, carcinoid tumor, and bronchioalveolar carcinoma.
Contact a Lung Cancer Attorney
If you or someone you love developed lung cancer or a lung disease as a result of exposure to a dangerous substance, you may be entitled to a legal settlement for your condition. To learn about you legal rights, it is important to contact a lung cancer attorney in your state.