Impacted by everything from smoking to air pollution, lung cancer is one of the most prevalent and most feared forms of this disease. Many of us associate this cancer with graphic imagery of blackened lungs, making lung cancer seem like a terrifying, unbeatable specter.
But as with any cancer diagnosis, knowledge is power. That’s why we’ve created this guide to lung cancer for patients and their loved ones. Find out more about your lungs, how they’re impacted by lung cancer, and how to spot the different types of lung cancer as early as possible.
How Do Healthy Lungs Work?
The two main functions of the lungs are taking in oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide. The right lung is larger with three sections, referred to as lobes. The left lung is slightly smaller, with two lobes to allow room for the heart.
When inhaling, air enters your body through your nose or mouth and enters your lungs through the trachea, also called a windpipe. The trachea divides into tubes called bronchi, which enter the lungs and divide into even smaller tubes called bronchioles. Think of these airways like the branches of a tree, spreading throughout your lungs to deliver oxygen for processing.
In this tree, the end of each twig-like bronchiole bears tiny air sacs called alveoli. Alveoli absorb oxygen from the air you’ve inhaled into your bloodstream. They also pull carbon dioxide back out of your blood, so you can expel that CO2 when you exhale.
What Are the Types of Lung Cancer?
Many of us already know that lung cancer can quickly and severely impact the healthy functioning of your lungs. But not everyone realizes that there are two primary types of lung cancer, and they are both treated very differently.
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (NSCLC)
Non-small cell lung cancer comprises most diagnosed cases. The main subtypes of NSCLC are adenocarcinoma, large cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma, and together these three make up about 80-85% of all lung cancers. Typically, their treatments and prognoses are also similar.
- Adenocarcinoma often occurs in people who currently smoke or used to smoke; however, it is also the most common lung cancer type seen in those who have never smoked. It is more common in women and more likely to occur in young people. Fortunately, this cancer tends to be diagnosed before it has spread and have a more positive outlook for treatment.
- Large cell carcinoma can appear in any part of the lungs, and of all the subtypes are the most likely to quickly spread and grow, making it difficult to treat. As such, early diagnosis is especially key.
- Squamous cell carcinoma starts in the flat cells that line the inside of the airways and can quickly spread to the center of the lungs. It is usually linked to people that have a history of smoking. This is a slow-growing cancer that often requires surgery, but only sometimes requires the additional treatment of radiation or chemotherapy.
Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC)
The second primary category of lung cancer is small cell lung cancer. This type typically will grow and spread faster than NSCLC, but only accounts for 10-15% of all lung cancer diagnoses. This type of cancer responds well to treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but has a reputation for returning after the initial treatment.
Other Forms of Lung Cancer
Besides these two main types of lung cancer, occasionally cancer can affect the lungs in different ways, such as:
- Large Carcinoid Tumors: These account for less than 5% of lung tumors and grow quite slowly.
- Other Lung Tumors: This includes lymphomas, sarcomas, adenoid cystic carcinomas, and hamartomas. These are very rare and are treated differently from common lung cancers, often dependent on a case-by-case analysis.
- Cancers That Spread to the Lungs from Elsewhere: If cancer starts in other organs, such as the breast, kidney, or pancreas, and then spreads to the lungs, it is not considered lung cancer. In such a case, treatment is based on where cancer started. For example, cancer that begins in the kidneys and spreads to the lungs is still considered kidney cancer and is treated as such.
Different cancers have different risk factors, but certain variables are common across many types. While having any of these factors does not necessarily mean that you will get the disease, it does increase your chances, and you should be aware and mindful.
Some risk factors that can be changed:
- Smoking: By far, this is the most significant risk factor for developing lung cancer. About 80% of lung cancer deaths are attributed to smoking. The more you smoke, the more you increase your risk. This includes exposure to secondhand smoke, which causes more than 7,000 deaths a year.
- Radon Exposure: This is the leading cause of lung cancer amongst those who do not smoke and the second leading cause in general, according to the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. Radon is a radioactive gas that naturally occurs when uranium breaks down in soil and rocks, and you cannot see, taste, or smell it.
- Asbestos Exposure: Even though government regulations have reduced the use of asbestos in industrial and commercial products in many countries, it may still present in older buildings and homes.
Risk factors you cannot change:
- Previous Radiation Therapy: Those who have had radiation therapy to the chest for other cancers, such as breast cancer or Hodgkin disease, are at a higher risk of lung cancer.
- Personal or Family History: If you have previously had lung cancer, you are at a higher risk for developing a different type. Or if any close relatives have had lung cancer, your risk also increases. That said, it is unclear how much of this increased risk is due to shared genes amongst family members or from shared household exposures such as radon, asbestos, or smoke.
Symptoms and Signs
Unfortunately, symptoms of lung cancer are not always evident until cancer has spread, but that is not always the case. The earlier cancer can be diagnosed, the more effective treatment will be, so it never hurts to keep an eye out for possible indicators — especially if you are at a higher risk.
The most common symptoms are:
- A cough that is persistent and continues to get worse
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that won’t go away or keep coming back
- Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum
- Chest pain that becomes worse with coughing, laughing, or deep breathing
- New onset of wheezing
- Losing your voice and going hoarse
- Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss
- Feeling tired or weak
- Shortness of breath for seemingly no reason
If lung cancer ends up spreading to other parts of your body, it can cause the following:
- Bone pain
- Changes in your nervous system such as headache, weakness or numbness of a limb, dizziness, balance problems, or seizures
- Swelling of lymph nodes, especially near your chest, collarbone, or neck
Lung Cancer Treatments
Treatment for lung cancer will vary depending on the patient’s age, tolerance of medication, type of cancer, and the extent of the disease. Options for treatment can include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy. You and your healthcare team will go over all the available options and develop a treatment plan specifically suited to your case.
At Aynjil, we have been personally affected by cancer diagnoses, including the therapies, treatments, and new ways of life that often follow. We’ve also seen the shortcomings of traditional insurance firsthand. That’s why we developed our unique cancer insurance product to include often-overlooked benefits — such as providing an au pair to help with your children and transportation to and from appointments. We also believe that mental health is critical during this time, and have options for traditional and alternative therapies.
Our insurance works in conjunction with your already existing health insurance to provide the best quality of life during your cancer journey. Just visit our website to see all that we offer and use our simplified four-minute process to sign up with us today!
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