Frequently Asked Questions About Lung Cancer

Q: Can lung cancer be prevented?

A: The best way to avoid getting lung cancer is to quit smoking or never to start. Avoiding second-hand smoke and being aware of possible exposure to cancer-causing chemicals is also important. In some cases, people who get lung cancer have no known risk factors. Unfortunately, there is no known way to prevent all cases of lung cancer.

Q: Can lung cancer be detected early?

A: Yes. Some lung cancers are found early as a result of tests that are done for other medical problems. But symptoms of lung cancer often do not appear until the disease is advanced. Only about 15 percent of lung cancer cases are found in the early stages or before the cancer has spread. Prompt attention to symptoms, leading to early diagnosis and treatment, can result in a cure for some patients. For others, prompt attention to symptoms can help them live longer and have better control of their symptoms.

Q: What are the lungs and what do they do?

A: The lungs are part of the respiratory system, which is how we breathe.

The lungs are spongy, cone shaped organs. The right lung, which is slightly bigger, has three lobes or sections. The left lung has two lobes. The lungs take in oxygen when we breathe in and expel carbon dioxide when we breathe out.

Q: What causes lung cancer?

A: The American Cancer Society estimates that smoking causes about 87 percent of lung cancer deaths. Harmful substances called carcinogens in tobacco harm cells in the lungs. After a while, these cells may turn into cancer. The longer a person smokes, and the more a person smokes, the higher the risk of lung cancer.

Q: Do nonsmokers get lung cancer?

A: Yes, nonsmokers can get lung cancer, but the risk is much lower than in smokers. There are factors other than smoking that increase a person's risk of getting lung cancer. Breathing in other people's smoke, exposure to radon, asbestos, air pollution, certain chemicals in the workplace, and a personal or family history of lung cancer are also risk factors for lung cancer.

Q: Is smoking marijuana harmful to the lungs?

A: Yes. Marijuana contains more tar than tobacco; is inhaled deeply and held in the lungs longer; is smoked to the end where the tar content is highest; and contains cancer-causing substances. However, since studies are difficult to do in marijuana smokers and since many of them also smoke regular cigarettes, it is hard to prove a definitive link to lung cancer.

Q: What are the most common symptoms of lung cancer?

A: A cough that doesn't go away and gets worse over time is one of the most common symptoms of lung cancer. Other symptoms include constant chest pain, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness, having pneumonia or bronchitis more than usual, swelling of the neck and face, and loss of appetite or weight. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious problems. If you have them, you should see a doctor.

Q: Are lung tumors ever benign?

A: Yes, but benign lung tumors are rare. When they occur, they are treated in the same way as cancerous tumors because it may be hard to tell them apart before surgery.

Q: Can the damage from smoking be undone?

A: Eventually, the body is able to clean the lungs after a person stops smoking, but some damage may be permanent. The longer the person smoked, the longer it will take for their lungs to get healthy. But, the lungs do begin to return to their natural pink shortly after smoking is stopped. The damage to the heart also gets better over time. Generally, 15 years after a person stops smoking, the risk of dying from lung cancer is about half of what it would have been if the person had continued smoking.

Q: Are there different types of lung cancer?

A: There are two main types of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common lung cancer. It usually grows and spreads more slowly than small cell lung cancer. There are three different types of non-small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer is more rare than non-small cell lung cancer and it grows and spreads more quickly. Doctors usually don't find this kind of cancer until it has already spread to other body parts. Small cell lung cancer may also be called oat cell carcinoma or small cell undifferentiated carcinoma.

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