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Lung Cancer: difficult to treat

All types of cancer are dangerous, but none are as difficult to treat as lung cancer. This type of cancer causes more deaths in men and women around the world than any other type of cancer. In the United States alone, an estimated 215,020 people are diagnosed with cancer of the lung each year, and an estimated 161,840 Americans die from lung cancer on an annual basis, according to data from the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Statistics show that one out of 14 people will eventually have lung cancer. That's an alarming trend, considering this condition occurs commonly in both men and women.

Why is lung cancer so dangerous?

Lung cancer is more dangerous than most other forms of cancer for two reasons: 1) how fast it spreads, and 2) it has few visible symptoms. Here we'll discuss each of these reasons in greater detail.

The spread of lung cancer

When people discuss cancer, they're discussing a phenomenon in which the cells in a certain part of the body mutate and begin reproducing at incredibly rapid rates. As cells reproduce, they eventually from large masses called tumors. If these tumors are malignant, they will continue to grow and spread to other parts of the body. Cancerous cells can also be spread through the glands and bloodstream, causing tumors to appear in other organs. Usually, cancerous cells don't begin spreading around the body until a considerable amount of time has passed, giving the cancerous growths a chance to mature. With lung cancer, this process begins soon after the cancerous cell mutations take place. By the time a person's lung cancer is detected, the cancer has often already spread to other parts of the body – often the brain, liver or adrenal glands -- making treatment much more difficult.

Types of lung cancer

Lung cancers generally fall into one of two categories: small cell lung cancers and non-small cell lung cancers.

  • Small-cell lung cancers: Small cell lung cancers are the most aggressive forms of lung cancer, but they only account for roughly one-fifth of all lung cancer cases. Smoking is believed to be the biggest risk factor for developing this condition. Research shows that only 1 percent of all small-cell tumors appear in non-smokers.
  • Non-small cell lung cancers: Almost all other cases of lung cancer fall under this category. Non-small cell tumors are still very dangerous and often spread to other parts of the body. However, these types of cancers appear commonly in nonsmokers as well as smokers, and they can appear in various parts of the lungs. The three main types of non-small cell lung cancers include adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas and large cell carcinomas.

Lung cancer screening tests

Fortunately, screening tests are available for people who are concerned about developing lung cancer. The most commonly used screening tests include chest X-rays and sputum cytology, a procedure in which mucus from the lungs is examined under a microscope for the presence of cancerous cells. Speak to your doctor if you're interested in undergoing a screening test for lung cancer.

What is lung cancer staging?

When people are diagnosed with lung cancer, one of the primary goals of the medical staff is to determine the stage of the patient's cancer. The stage of a cancerous growth indicates how large tumors have become and how far cancerous cells have spread through the body. Typically, early-stage cancers are confined to a specific organ. Mid-stage cancerous cells may have spread to tissues surrounding their points of origin. Late-stage cancers are characterized by cancerous cells or tumors in various regions of the body. Doctors may ask patients to submit to blood tests, X-rays, MRIs and other testing methods to determine the stages of cancer.

The staging of cancer is important because it helps determine how patients will be treated for their conditions. For example, early stage lung cancer may be treatable through surgery, whereas more developed cases of cancer would likely require a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Cancer that has progressed beyond the point of treatment can be handled with palliative or hospice care. Cancer patients are much more likely to make recoveries or live longer lives when their conditions are discovered at earlier stages.

The stages of lung cancer

Lung cancer is staged differently depending on whether a patient has a non-small celled lung cancer (NSCLC) or small-celled lung cancer (SCLC). The staging breakdown is as follows:

NSCLC staging

  • Stage I: Cancerous growths of this stage are confined to the lung and can often be surgically removed.
  • Stage II: Second-stage NSCLC lung cancer has spread outside the lung but is still confined to the chest.
  • Stage III: Same as second-stage lung cancer, only tumors are larger and more aggressive, posing a greater risk for other parts of the body and causing treatment complications.
  • Stage IV: Fully matured lung cancer has aggressively spread to other regions of the body away from the chest.

SCLC staging

The staging for SCLC is different because of the aggressive nature of this type of cancer:

  • Limited-stage: This stage of SCLC lung cancer remains confined to the chest area.
  • Extensive-stage: This stage of SCLC has already invaded other parts of the body outside of the chest region.

Lung cancer staging and treatment

The stage of a patient's lung cancer will strongly indicate the type of treatment he or she receives. Some cancer treatments are used to eradicate or remove cancerous cells from certain parts of the body, while other treatments are used to cleanse the entire body of malignant growths.

Early stage cancers, such as Stage I NSCLC growths, are often treatable with surgery. Surgical procedures are commonly used to either remove tumors from the body or to remove the afflicted organ or body part. For example, women who have breast cancer undergo mastectomy procedures to remove cancerous growths from their bodies. Obviously, surgeons can't remove the afflicted lung of someone who has lung cancer, but tumors that haven't grown too large can sometimes be removed.

Mid-stage cancers, which are usually confined to the region of the body from which they originated, are often treated with radiation therapy. This type of therapy uses high-energy ionized radiation to kill or slow the growth of cancerous cells and tumors in focused parts of the body. Radiation therapy has been known to completely eradicate cancer cells, and it's often used in conjunction with surgical procedures used to treat early-stage cancers. For patients who have extremely aggressive mid-stage cancers, radiation therapy can also slow the rate at which their cancers spread, helping them live longer, more comfortable lives.

Late-stage cancers are often met with several different treatment methods. A person with late-stage lung cancer may undergo radiation treatment in addition to chemotherapy, which is the use of powerful drugs to destroy cells in the body that reproduce at a rapid rate – a key characteristic of cancer cells. Chemotherapy can kill cancer cells in any part of the body, which is vital for the treatment of aggressive, late-stage cancer. Unfortunately, lung cancer can become incurable and unmanageable in its latest stages of growth. In these cases, doctors may focus on providing compassionate end-of-life care.

Lung cancer: symptoms not often obvious

Lung cancer is one of the most lethal forms of cancer because it is so difficult to detect. Many people who have lung cancer aren't aware of their conditions until their cancers have reached mid or late stages of growth – which means cancerous cells have begun spreading to other parts of the body. Lung cancer becomes much more difficult to treat once cancerous cells spread to the chest and beyond. That's why lung cancer is the most fatal form of cancer among men and women in the world today.

Like all forms of cancer, lung cancer has its share of symptoms. The problem is many of these symptoms are shared by lesser illnesses such as the cold or flu. Also, many people with lung cancer – roughly one-quarter of all patients – never show any symptoms until their cancer is discovered, usually through a chest X-ray or a CT scan. To make matters worse, cancerous growths often require several years before they're big enough to be seen in a chest X-ray. That means lung cancer has almost always reached a mid or advanced stage by the time it is detected.

Lung cancer symptoms

There are several warning signs may indicate the development of lung cancer, although some of these signs are commonly associated with other medical conditions.

  • Labored breathing: Cancerous growths in the lung may inhibit the body's natural breathing patterns, which can result in labored breathing, wheezing or shortness of breath. People with tumors in their lungs may experience a chronic cough, or they may occasionally cough up blood.
  • Hoarseness: Lung cancer can damage the vocal cords, damaging a person's ability to speak at full volume.
  • Difficulty swallowing: If the esophagus is damaged by aggressive cancerous growths in the lungs, then patients may experience pain or difficulty when swallowing. This may be accompanied by hoarseness.
  • Unusual shoulder pain: Cancer of the lung can damage nearby nerves, causing painful sensations in the shoulder which can radiate down the arm.

  • Elevated hormone levels: Cancerous tumors produce hormone-like substances that can lead to the overabundance of other hormones and chemicals in the body.

  • Repeated respiratory illnesses: The lungs are permanently weakened when stricken with cancerous growths, leaving them more vulnerable to bronchitis and other respiratory problems.

  • Universal cancer symptoms: Several symptoms are common among patients with various forms of cancer. These universal symptoms of cancer include unexplained weight loss, chronic fatigue, depression and mood swings. Again, many of these symptoms are often mistaken for less-serious medical conditions unless they're accompanied by more unusual symptoms.

When to see a doctor

Many people are reluctant to see a doctor even when showing various symptoms of lung cancer. Perhaps they don't want to give the appearance of overreacting, or it may be they're slightly afraid of what the doctor may find after running tests. The thing to remember is that lung cancer is extremely dangerous, and a patient's chances of long-term survival decrease as the disease is allowed to reach later stages of growth. Early intervention is crucial for the successful treatment of all forms of cancer, but it's especially important in the treatment of lung cancer.

People who are experiencing several of the above symptoms – especially a chronic cough, blood in the sputum (mucus from the lungs), repeated respiratory infections or chest pain – should visit their doctors immediately. There are several methods for detecting the presence of lung cancer. Some of the more common methods include chest X-rays, blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, bone scans and examination cells from sputum samples. Elderly people who show symptoms of lung cancer, but end up not having it, can still benefit from undergoing a lung cancer screening test.

Lung Cancer Treatment

The treatment for lung cancer is often complicated. Unlike many other forms of cancer, lung cancer is not often detected until growths have advanced to mid or late stages, meaning cancerous cells have already spread outside the lung to the chest or other regions of the body. Cancer that has advanced beyond its early stages must be fought with a combination of treatment methods. Usually, this means a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Lung cancer and risks to the brain

Small-cell lung cancers spread aggressively through the body, and often to the brain, liver and adrenal glands. It's not uncommon for doctors to administer a special kind of radiation therapy to the heads of patients who are undergoing lung cancer treatment. Small-cell lung cancers are very aggressive, and cancerous cells can spread to other parts of the body in such small amounts that they're not detectable through MRIs or CAT scans. Pre-emptive radiation therapy to the head helps to kill these cancer cells before they can grow into malignant tumors. Brain tumors are highly fatal and often impossible to remove through surgery.

Other factors affecting treatment

Patients who have lung cancer have several options to consider when planning their treatments with their doctors. A number of factors such as age, height, weight, overall health and family health history are considered when doctors recommend specific treatments. Doctors may also recommend a variety of other existing and experimental treatments, as clinical researchers are always working on new methods for battling cancerous growths.

In addition to treating a patient's physical condition, doctors also take steps to help patients heal psychologically and emotionally. Many patients are referred to cancer support groups where they can talk with others who have shared their experiences. Especially among the elderly – a demographic heavily impacted by lung cancer – support groups and counseling can provide a huge lift when their conditions have made them feel alone and isolated.

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