Understanding Lung Cancer 

Each year, more people die from lung cancer than colon, breast, prostate and liver cancer combined. The American Cancer Society estimates that lung cancer makes up approximately 1/4 of all deaths related to cancer.

What is Lung Cancer?

If cells inside your lungs begin to grow abnormally, they can form a cancerous mass, otherwise known as a tumor. As the tumor grows, it may spread to other parts of your body. This process is known as metastasis. The longer your cancer continues to spread and is untreated, the lower your chances become of surviving the disease. That’s why early detection of lung cancer is the key to successful treatment.

Lung Cancer Types

  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common kind of lung cancer, making up nearly 85% of all lung cancer diagnoses.
  • NSCLC is named for the kind of cells found in this type of lung cancer and refers to how those cells appear beneath a microscope.
  • Even though NSCLC primarily occurs in current or former smokers, non-small cell lung cancer is also the primary type of lung cancer diagnosed in people who have never smoked. 
  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) affects far fewer people than non-small cell lung cancer and almost always occurs in smokers.
  • It accounts for roughly 15% of all lung cancer diagnoses.
  • Like non-small cell lung cancer, SCLC is named for the kind of cells found in cancer and refers to how those cells appear beneath a microscope.
  • The rate of small cell lung cancer diagnoses has fallen in recent decades, reflecting changes in the number of people who smoke and the reduction of workplace hazards.
  • Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of lung cancer that grows in the tissue surrounding the lungs and mostly affects people who were exposed to a mineral called asbestos.
  • Mesothelioma is rare but often fatal since most people don’t discover they have it until cancer has already reached an advanced stage. 

Lung Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

Lung cancer usually affects current or former smokers. Cigarette smoke contains toxic substances, which damage cells in the lungs. Several factors such as the number of cigarettes you’ve smoked, when you started smoking and the total number of years you’ve smoked will affect your risk of lung cancer. Other lung cancer risk factors, for both smokers and non-smokers alike, include second-hand smoke, age, gender and exposure.

Even if you aren’t a smoker, you can still develop lung cancer if you’ve been exposed to a substantial amount of second-hand smoke in your lifetime. To minimize your risk, you can always politely ask others to smoke outside or remove yourself from a potentially harmful environment. 

The older you are the greater your chances become of developing lung cancer. In fact, a very low percentage of people under the age of 45 are diagnosed with lung cancer. The average age of a lung cancer diagnosis hovers around 70. Additionally, Men are at a slightly greater risk of developing lung cancer than women. The American Cancer Society estimates that the chances of a man developing lung cancer at some point within his lifetime are about 1 in 15 whereas the chances for women are about 1 in 17. It’s important to note that those numbers include both smokers and non-smokers.

Sustained exposure to harmful chemical substances, such as asbestos, radon, nickel, soot, tar, arsenic or chromium in your home or workplace greatly increases your chances of being diagnosed with lung cancer.

You can greatly reduce your odds of getting lung cancer by quitting smoking right now, even if you’ve smoked most of your life. 

Lung Cancer Symptoms

Unfortunately, lung cancer symptoms may not show up until cancer has already reached an advanced stage. Not only that, but symptoms may also be mistaken for other, less life-threatening illnesses, such as bronchitis. The following are among the most common signs and symptoms of lung cancer.

Advanced stages of lung cancer can bring about excessive pain in the lining of the lungs and even in other areas of the body, specifically the bone, causing unexpected pain to appear in your chest, back or shoulders.

If lung cancer has spread, it can cause severe bleeding in the major airways of the body, which can cause you to cough up blood. This process is also known as hemoptysis.

Lung cancer can spread, blocking major airways of the body and causing excess fluid to build up around the lungs. This makes it harder for your lungs to expand correctly, causing shortness of breath.

A persistent cough that worsens over time or an unexpected change to a chronic cough is a symptom of lung cancer.

unexpected fatigue may be an early indicator that your body has developed lung cancer. If you experience a significant change to your overall energy and disposition, it’s recommended you see a specialist immediately for an exam or lung cancer screening.

Another sign of lung cancer is drastic weight fluctuation, without changes to exercise or diet.

While one of these symptoms on its own doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve developed lung cancer, it’s important to take all of them seriously. If you notice any of these symptoms persist, meet with your Mercy doctor right away to see if you qualify for screening. 

Diagnosing Lung Cancer

While receiving a lung cancer diagnosis can be an extremely troubling event, there are treatment options available now that provide hope. Here at Mercy, our multispecialty team of cancer experts understands the importance of a well-rounded approach to detecting lung cancer cells. Perhaps the single biggest factor in surviving a lung cancer diagnosis is early detection. Routine lung cancer screenings could save your life. Learn more about lung cancer screenings and the importance of early detection.

How to Test for Lung Cancer

low-dose CT scan also referred to as an LDCT, is a simple test is usually conducted after your initial lung cancer screening.  An LDCT allows your Mercy doctor to capture a more detailed representation of your lungs by using a special X-ray is used to take multiple pictures of your lungs.

Also known simply as a PET scan, this procedure is sometimes combined with an LDCT scan by using a machine that can run both imaging tests simultaneously. A PET scan is performed by injecting a radioactive substance, also known as a tracer, into a vein to look for disease within your lungs. This allows your Mercy doctor the ability to compare areas of higher radioactivity with the more detailed picture gathered during your LDCT scan.

If an abnormality is caught during your chest X-ray or your LDCT/PET scan detects anything unusual, your Mercy doctor might recommend a lung biopsy. A lung biopsy is when a pathologist physically removes a small sample of your cells in order to view them under a microscope and check for signs of cancer. There are several types of biopsies used in the detection of lung cancer.

A bronchoscopy is a type of biopsy used to view the trachea and airways in the lung for anything out of the ordinary. A bronchoscope is a thin instrument used to remove tissue samples during the procedure. It also has a light attachment that’s used for viewing.

Endobronchial ultrasound is another form of biopsy, otherwise known as EBUS. It’s used to gather images of the lungs and lymph nodes through a scope. After sedating you, a pulmonologist will insert a tube through your mouth and windpipe to reach the lungs in order to access and view the area of concern determined by an X-ray.

Lung Cancer Treatment Options

Mercy’s team of cancer specialists has experience treating all types of lung cancer, including lung cancer that has spread or returned. We’ll develop a coordinated and thorough treatment plan to fight your lung cancer, by using medication therapy, radiation therapy, cancer surgery or a combination of these treatment methods. Your treatment plan will depend on several important factors, including:

  • The current stage of your lung cancer
  • Whether lung cancer has spread to other areas of the body
  • Overall health



Also referred to simply as “chemo,” chemotherapy uses a range of different drugs, usually inserted directly into the vein, to kill cancer cells, as well as to stop them from growing and dividing.


Targeted Therapy


Most drugs used during chemotherapy can’t tell the difference between cancer cells and healthy cells. This can lead to unwelcome side effects such as nausea, hair loss and memory problems. Targeted therapy uses drugs that aim for specific areas inside cancer cells, leaving your healthy cells alone.




One of the ways that cancer cells grow and develop within your immune system is due to their ability to evade the immune system altogether. This type of drug treatment uses special medications to recruit your immune system to attack cancer once it recognizes its presence within your body. 

Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy


Also referred to as SBRT, this type of external radiation therapy is ideal for lung cancer tumors that are hard to reach, prone to movement or next to vital organs. SBRT offers a more precise radiation delivery system while avoiding healthy tissue next to the tumor.

Depending on the type of lung cancer, it can be treated with surgery. Lung cancer surgery may be an option for early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and early-stage small cell lung cancer (SCLC). There are several lung cancer surgery options that may involve the removal of the whole lung or a part of the lung. These include wedge resection, segmental resection, lobectomy and pneumonectomy. Whenever possible, Mercy surgeons use minimally invasive robotic surgery with the goal of shorter hospital stays and reduced pain. Learn more about lung cancer surgery options.

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