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Health Information Center

Lung Cancer

  • Laurie LaRusso, MS, ELS
Publication Type:


Lung Cancer

(NSCLC; Non-small Cell Lung Cancer; Non-small Cell Bronchogenic Carcinoma; Small Cell Lung Cancer)


Lung cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the lungs. The most common type of lung cancer are:

  • Non-small cell lung cancer—generally grows and spreads more slowly (most common)
  • Small cell lung cancer—generally grows more quickly and is more likely to spread to other parts of the body
Lung Cancer.

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Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. If cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms. This growth is called a tumor. Cancer growths can invade nearby tissue. It can then spread to other parts of the body. Regular damage increases the turnover of cells.

The following are known to damage to the lungs, and cause lung cancer:

  • First- or second-hand smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes
  • Exposure to asbestos (a type of mineral) or radon (radioactive gas)

Risk Factors

Things that may increase your chances of lung cancer are:

  • Smoking
  • Using chewing tobacco
  • Exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Exposure to asbestos or radon
  • Having a lung disease, such as tuberculosis
  • Family or personal history of lung cancer
  • Exposure to certain air pollutants
  • Exposure to coal dust
  • Radiation therapy that was used to treat other cancers
  • HIV infection

Most professional groups suggest lung cancer screening with a low-dose CT scan for those at high risk. High risk includes being 50 to 80 years old, history of heavy smoking, and being a current smoker or quit within last 15 years.


Symptoms and signs may include:

  • A cough that does not go away and worsens over time
  • Constant chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness
  • Repeated problems with pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Swelling of the neck and face
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Clubbing—tips of fingers and toes become wider and rounder


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will also ask about:

  • Smoking habits past or present
  • Things you may have come in contact with that can harm lungs
  • Family history of cancer

Tests may include:

  • Sputum cytology—mucus from the lungs is sent to a lab
  • Biopsy—a sample of lung tissue is removed and looked at under a microscope

Images of the lungs and chest may be taken with:

The doctor will use results from all tests to determine the stage of cancer. Staging is used to guide your treatment plan. Lung cancer is staged from 1 to 4. Stage 1 cancer is contained in a small area. Stage 4 caner is one that has spread to other parts of the body.

Lung cancer screening may help to find lung cancer at early stages in those at high risk.


The goal of treatment is to remove as much cancer as possible and control the symptoms.


To help reduce your chances of lung cancer:

  • Do not start smoking. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how to successfully quit.
  • Avoid places where people are smoking.
  • Test your home for radon gases and asbestos. Have these substances removed if they are in the home.
  • Try to avoid or limit occupational exposures.


Surgery is done to remove the tumor and nearby tissue. Lymph nodes may also need to be removed. The type of surgery depends on the stage and area. Common choices include:

  • Segmental or wedge resection—a small part of the lung is removed
  • Lobectomy—an entire lobe of the lung is removed
  • Pneumonectomy—an entire lung is removed




  • Cancer immunotherapy. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/immunotherapy.html.
  • General information about non-small cell lung cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/non-small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq.
  • General information about small cell lung cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/small-cell-lung-treatment-pdq.
  • Lung cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer.html.
  • Non-small cell lung cancer. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/non-small-cell-lung-cancer.
  • Small cell lung cancer. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/small-cell-lung-cancer.
  • Targeted cancer therapies. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/targeted-therapies/targeted-therapies-fact-sheet.
  • What do I need to know about lung cancer screening? American Lung Association website. Available at: http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/lung-cancer/learn-about-lung-cancer/lung-cancer-screening.


  • Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.