Lung Cancer Frequently Asked Questions


What are the lungs?

The lungs are a pair of organs that your body uses to breathe. They are found inside your chest. The lungs bring fresh oxygen into your body and push carbon dioxide out of your body.

What is lung cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which the body’s cells grow out of control. Lung cancer starts in the lungs but can spread to other parts of the body. Lung cancer is often, but not always, caused by smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke. More people in the United States die from lung cancer than from any other type of cancer.

What are the risk factors for lung cancer?

A risk factor is something that increases your chances of getting a disease. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will definitely get a disease, only that you and your doctor should watch more carefully for warning signs. Some risk factors can be changed and some cannot.

Risk factors for lung cancer may include:

  • Smoking
  • Exposure to other people’s smoking (second-hand smoke)
  • Exposure to radon gas, a natural gas, which is harmful in high levels and sometimes found in homes
  • Exposure to certain cancer-causing materials like asbestos and arsenic
  • Family history of lung cancer

What are the causes of lung cancer?

Lung cancer is most commonly caused by smoking or being around other people who are smoking. Cigarette smoke includes dangerous substances that can change the cells inside your lungs. The more you smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke, the higher your risk of developing lung cancer. While smoke is the cause of most lung cancer, people who have never smoked or been around smoking can develop lung cancer too. Occasionally, lung cancer does not have a clear cause.

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

Symptoms of lung cancer can include:

  • A persistent cough
  • Changes in a chronic cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pains
  • Shoulder or arm pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Unexplained weight loss 

Some people who have lung cancer may not experience any symptoms until the disease is at an advanced stage.

What are the types of screenings that can be done for lung cancer?

There are lung cancer screenings for people who are at risk of developing the disease but do not have any symptoms. Screenings can be helpful in detecting cancer early – when it is most treatable.

Low-dose computed tomography or LDCT is a type of X-ray that is used for screenings. People who qualify for low-dose CT scans for lung cancer screening have at least a 30 packs a year smoking history. In other words, it is the number of years smoked multiplied by the number of packs smoked per day. Also, they are between the ages of 55 and 74 and quit smoking less than 15 years prior.

The National Lung Screening Trial conducted a study comparing two ways of detecting lung cancer – low-dose helical computed tomography (CT) and standard chest X-ray. The findings showed that those who received low-dose helical CT scans had a 15 to 20 percent decrease in mortality from lung cancer than those who received standard chest X-rays. Participants were people who had smoking histories of at least 30 packs a year and were either current or former smoker without signs, symptoms or history of lung cancer

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosing lung cancer is usually gathering images of the lungs using CT or CAT, MRI or PET scans. If the doctor is concerned about the images from these scans, the second step is taking a tissue sample from inside the lungs. This procedure is called a biopsy. If cancer is found in the tissue, genetic tests often help doctors determine how advanced the cancer is and the best treatment approach.

What are the treatments for lung cancer?

Treatment for lung cancer depends on many factors including the lung cancer type and how advanced it has become. Treatments that can be used alone or in combination include:

  • Surgery to remove the part of the lung where the tumor is located
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy, which uses drugs that attack cancer cells
  • Immunotherapy or biologic therapy that uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells

What are some of the types of lung cancer?

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type. About 80 percent of people who have lung cancer are diagnosed with some type of NSCLC. There are different kinds of NSCLC, but they are treated similarly and have similar outcomes. NSCLC types include adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma, adenosquamous carcinoma and sarcomatoid carcinoma.

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) is a less common type. It is an aggressive cancer, meaning that it quickly grows in other parts of the body. About 20 percent of people who have lung cancer are diagnosed with SCLC. It often starts with cells that are smaller than most other cancer cells.

Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a kind of insulating material that was once commonly used in buildings but was later discovered to cause cancer. Mesothelioma can start in the lungs or in other parts of the body.

What are the rates of lung cancer?

Approximately 6.5 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with lung or bronchus cancer at some point during their life based on 2011-2013 data from the National Institutes of Health.