Lung Cancer

Search Knowledgebase

Topic Contents

Lung Cancer

Topic Overview

What is lung cancer?

Lung cancer starts when abnormal cells grow out of control in the lung. They can invade nearby tissues and form tumours. Lung cancer can start anywhere in the lungs and affect any part of the respiratory system.

The cancer cells can spread, or metastasize, to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.

What causes lung cancer?

Most lung cancer is caused by smoking. Second-hand smoke also can cause lung cancer. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths.

Being exposed to arsenic, asbestos, radioactive dust, or radon can increase your chances of getting lung cancer. People who are exposed to radiation at work or elsewhere have a higher chance of getting lung cancer.

What are the symptoms?

Early lung cancer doesn't usually cause any symptoms. This is why it's not usually found early.

In its advanced stage, cancer may affect how your lungs work. The first signs of lung cancer may include:

  • Coughing.
  • Wheezing.
  • Feeling short of breath.
  • Having blood in any mucus that you cough up.

If you have these symptoms and are worried about lung cancer, call your doctor.

Lung cancer may spread within the chest and then to other parts of the body. For example, if it spreads to the spine or bones, it may cause pain in the back or other bones or weakness in the arms or legs. If it spreads to the brain, it may cause seizures, headaches, or vision changes.

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Your doctor will check your symptoms and ask questions about whether you smoke or have been exposed to another person's smoke or to any cancer-causing substances. He or she will also ask about your medical history, including any history of cancer in your family. This information will help your doctor decide how likely it is that you have lung cancer and whether you need tests to be sure.

Lung cancer is usually first found on a chest X-ray or a CT scan. More tests are done to find out what kind of cancer cells you have and whether they have spread beyond your lung. These tests help your doctor and you find out what stage the cancer is in. The stage is a rating to measure how big the cancer is and how far it has spread.

How is it treated?

Treatment for lung cancer includes surgery, anti-cancer medicines (chemotherapy), radiation, or a mix of all three. It depends on what type of cancer you have and how much it has spread.

Few lung cancers are found in the early stages when treatment is most effective. When lung cancer is found before it has spread outside the lungs, about half of these people will live at least 5 more years.1 After lung cancer has spread outside the lungs, how long a person lives usually depends on how far the cancer has spread (the stage) by the time it is found.

It can be very scary to learn that you may have lung cancer. Talking with your doctor or joining a support group may help you deal with your feelings. Having support from family and friends can help a lot. And staying as active as possible will also help.

Can you prevent lung cancer?

Lung cancer is one of the easiest cancers to prevent because most lung cancer is caused by smoking. So it is important to stop smoking—or to stop being around someone else’s smoke.

Even if you have smoked a long time, quitting can lower your chances of getting cancer. If you already have lung cancer, quitting makes your treatment work better and can help you live longer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about lung cancer:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with lung cancer:

Care at the end of life issues:

Health Tools Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Actionsets help people take an active role in managing a health condition. Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.
  Cancer: Controlling nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy
  Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation

Cause

Most lung cancer is caused by smoking. Over 85% of lung cancers are related to smoking.2 Cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) in tobacco smoke damage lung cells. Over time, these damaged cells may develop into lung cancer.

If you are a smoker, the risk of getting lung cancer is related to how long you have smoked and how many cigarettes you smoke each day. Quitting smoking reduces your risk for getting cancer, and your risk continues to go down as long as you do not smoke. Even cutting down how much you smoke may reduce your risk (but not as much as quitting completely).

If you live with a smoker, you have a higher risk of developing lung cancer compared with a person who lives in a non-smoking environment.

Studies do not show clearly whether men who smoke are at a higher risk for lung cancer than women who smoke. Among non-smokers, women are more likely to get lung cancer than men. Women also are more likely to be younger when they are diagnosed. But women also respond better to treatment for lung cancer.3

Exposure to other harmful substances, such as asbestos, radioactive dust, or radon, increases the risk for lung cancer. Exposure to radiation such as X-rays may also increase risk.4

Symptoms

You may not have any symptoms of lung cancer, or you may have symptoms such as a cough or shortness of breath that you might think are related to a respiratory illness.

Symptoms of lung cancer may include:

  • A new cough or a cough that does not go away. Smokers who have a chronic cough from smoking may have a change in how severe their cough is or how much they cough.
  • Chest, shoulder, or back pain that does not go away and often gets worse with deep breathing.
  • New wheezing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Coughing up blood or bloody mucus.
  • Swelling in the neck and face.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite.
  • Increasing fatigue and weakness.
  • Recurring respiratory infections, such as pneumonia.
  • Clubbing of the fingers and toes. The nails appear to bulge out more than normal.

Lung cancer may spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. The most common sites are the bones, the brain, the liver, the other lung, the lining of the heart (pericardium), and the adrenal glands. When lung cancer spreads, other symptoms may also occur.

Symptoms of cancer that has spread to the spine or bones may include:

  • Bone pain.
  • Weakness or numbness of the arms or legs.
  • Back pain.

Symptoms of cancer that has spread to the brain may include:

  • Seizures.
  • Headaches.
  • Change in alertness.
  • Vision changes, such as double vision or new blind spots.
  • Nausea or vomiting.

Symptoms of cancer that has spread to the liver or lymph nodes may include:

  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice).
  • Lumps or bumps under the skin or enlarged lymph nodes.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Weight loss.

What Happens

Lung cancer may cause breathing or heart problems such as:

  • Pleural effusion, which is the buildup of fluid between the outer lining of the lungs and the chest wall. This is a common condition with lung cancer.
  • Coughing up large amounts of bloody sputum.
  • Collapse of a lung (pneumothorax).
  • Blockage of the airway (bronchial obstruction).
  • Recurrent infections, such as pneumonia.
  • Pericardial effusion, which is the buildup of fluid in the space between the heart and the sac around the heart (pericardium). This condition is not common with lung cancer.

As lung cancer grows, it may spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Lung cancer is classified in stages that are determined by the size of the cancer and how far it has spread within the lung, to nearby tissues, or to other organs.

Your doctor determines the stage of your lung cancer by gathering information from a variety of tests, including bone scans, PET scans, CT scans, and X-rays. The stage of your cancer is one of the most important factors in choosing an effective treatment.

The long-term outcome (prognosis) for lung cancer depends on how much the cancer has grown and spread. Experts talk about prognosis in terms of "5-year survival rates." The 5-year survival rate means the percentage of people who are still alive 5 years or longer after their cancer was discovered. Because lung cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage, only 15% of people live 5 or more years after being diagnosed.5 It is important to remember that these are only averages. Everyone's case is different, and these numbers do not necessarily show what will happen to you.

What Increases Your Risk

Risk factors for lung cancer include:

  • Tobacco use. Smoking and chewing tobacco are related to developing lung cancer, as well as to cancer of the mouth and throat. Over 85% of lung cancers are related to smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke. More than half of the people who are newly diagnosed with lung cancer are former smokers. The risk of developing lung cancer increases:
    • The longer you smoke.
    • The more cigarettes you smoke each day.
  • Marijuana use. Smoking one marijuana cigarette, or a joint, may affect the lungs as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes.6
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, such as arsenic, asbestos, radioactive dust, or radon.
  • Radiation exposure from occupational, medical, or environmental sources.

When To Call a Doctor

If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions about calling when you have problems, new symptoms, or symptoms that get worse.

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you:

  • Have new or sudden onset of chest pain that is crushing or squeezing, is increasing in intensity, or occurs with any other symptoms of a heart attack.
  • Have new or sudden difficulty breathing.
  • Are coughing up a lot of blood (not just streaks of blood or a small amount of blood mixed with a lot of mucus) from your lungs.
  • Have been vomiting and feel that you may pass out when you sit up or stand.

Call your doctor immediately for medical evaluation if you have:

  • Laboured, shallow, rapid breathing with shortness of breath or wheezing, even when you are resting.
  • Swelling of your neck and face.

Call your doctor to find out when an evaluation is needed if you:

  • Have new chest pain (more than just discomfort when you cough) that lasts a long time and gets worse when you breathe deeply.
  • Develop symptoms of pneumonia, such as shortness of breath, cough, and fever.
  • Have a cough that produces a small amount of bloody (bright red or rust-coloured) sputum.
  • Frequently cough up yellow or green sputum from your lungs (not post-nasal drainage) for longer than 2 days.
  • Vomit frequently from coughing.
  • Have a cough that lasts longer than 4 weeks.
  • Breathe normally when you are at rest but are very short of breath after any physical exercise.
  • Have increasing fatigue for no apparent reason.
  • Have unexplained weight loss.

Watchful Waiting

Watchful waiting is a period of time during which you and your doctor observe your condition or symptoms but you do not receive medical treatment. Watchful waiting is not appropriate if you have symptoms that do not go away. If you are concerned about your symptoms and believe you may be at risk for lung cancer, call and make an appointment with your doctor.

It often is difficult to decide when to see a doctor for respiratory symptoms. See the topic Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older to find out if and when you need to see your doctor.

Who To See

Your family doctor or general practitioner can evaluate your symptoms and your risk for lung cancer. You may be referred to a specialist for treatment.

Health professionals who can evaluate and treat your lung cancer include:

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Examinations and Tests

To determine whether lung cancer may be causing your respiratory symptoms, your doctor will evaluate your:

  • Medical history, including your smoking history and any symptoms you have now.
  • Exposure to environmental and work substances.
  • Family history of cancer.

Initial examinations and tests for suspected lung cancer include:

If your medical history, physical examination, or chest X-ray suggest that lung cancer is present, your doctor may recommend other tests, such as:

  • CT scan of the lungs, sometimes with transthoracic needle aspiration biopsy (TNAB) of a lung nodule. A needle biopsy uses a needle inserted through the chest wall to remove a sample of lung tissue (biopsy). This usually is done if the abnormal lung tissue is located close to the chest wall. Imaging procedures such as ultrasound or fluoroscopy may also be used to help guide the needle to the right spot.
  • Sputum cytology to evaluate the type of any abnormal cells that are present in your mucus.
  • Thoracentesis to take a sample of the fluid around your lungs to evaluate the type of any abnormal cells. Thoracentesis is done if you have a large collection of fluid around your lung (pleural effusion). Thoracentesis is sometimes used to find out why you have fluid collecting around your lung. Other times it is just to remove the fluid and make it easier for you to breathe.
  • Bronchoscopy to take a biopsy of cells from your airway.
  • Lung biopsy to evaluate the type of any abnormal cells.
  • Video-assisted thoracoscopy (VATS) to take a biopsy of lung tissue through a small incision between two ribs with the aid of a thin, lighted tube (videoscope) and small surgical instruments.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET). PET scanning can help determine whether a lung mass (tumour) or enlarged lymph node is cancerous. PET may help determine whether surgery is a treatment option. PET scanning may also be used after treatment to see how well the treatment worked. PET scanning can be used to look for areas of the liver, adrenal gland, or bone that may show where lung cancer has spread.

After the type of lung cancer has been diagnosed, testing is done to find out whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other organs in your body and to determine the stage of the cancer. Treatment of lung cancer is based on the stage of the cancer. Tests used to determine whether the cancer has spread may include:

  • Mediastinoscopy to take biopsies of lymph nodes to find out whether the cancer has spread to the chest behind the breastbone (mediastinum).
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). In this test, a small ultrasound probe at the end of the endoscope is placed down the throat to the chest area. The ultrasound can help detect cancer behind the breast bone or in lymph nodes in the area. EUS may also be used to guide a biopsy of the lung, lymph nodes, or other areas.
  • CT scan of the brain, neck, abdomen, or pelvis to determine whether the cancer has spread to these areas.
  • MRI of the brain to determine whether the cancer has spread to the brain.
  • Bone scan to determine whether the cancer has spread to the bones.

An MRI of the spine may be done if there is concern that the lung cancer has already spread to the spine. An MRI of the chest may also be done, but a chest CT scan is used most often to find out whether the cancer has spread in the chest.

Lung function studies, including a lung scan (ventilation and perfusion scans, V/Q scan), may be done if surgery to remove cancer in all or part of a lung is being considered. A person who has very poor lung function may not be a good candidate for surgery.

If small cell lung cancer is diagnosed, additional testing may include a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy.

Early Detection

Several studies have examined the usefulness of chest X-rays, sputum cytologies, or spiral CT to screen for lung cancer in people who do not have symptoms. Although these tests can sometimes diagnose early lung cancer, they have not been proved to affect the long-term outcome (prognosis) of lung cancer. Currently no medical professional organizations recommend routine screening for lung cancer. Experts continue to study the benefits of screening tests.

Screening may help people whose risk for lung cancer is higher than normal. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of screening tests if you:

  • Are a smoker.
  • Have had radiation treatment to the chest area.
  • Have some other reason for higher risk.

Your doctor can help you decide whether a screening test for lung cancer is right for you. He or she may also help you lower your lung cancer risk and plan for regular checkups.

Screening tests may aid in the early diagnosis of lung cancer, but the tests can also show abnormal findings, such as nodules, that are not cancer (false-positives). The finding of a solitary pulmonary nodule (SPN) on a chest X-ray does not always mean that cancer is present. Certain tests can help doctors determine whether an SPN is non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). If cancer is suspected and the tissue is located close to the chest wall, a needle biopsy is recommended to confirm or rule out the presence of cancer. A needle biopsy uses a long needle inserted through the chest wall to remove a sample of lung tissue. Imaging procedures such as CT scan, ultrasound, or fluoroscopy usually are used to help guide the needle to the right spot.

Treatment Overview

Treatment for lung cancer depends on the stage of your cancer and may include surgery to remove the cancer, radiation therapy, or medications (chemotherapy). Treatment for non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC) may be different.

Treatment for lung cancer may include one or more of the following therapies:

  • Surgery (taking out the cancer). Surgery may involve removing the cancer (wedge resection), removing the affected lobe of lung (lobectomy), or removing the entire lung (pneumonectomy).
  • Radiation therapy (using high-dose X-rays to kill cancer cells). Radiation therapy is often used in combination with surgery or chemotherapy or both.
  • Chemotherapy (using medicines to kill cancer cells). Chemotherapy can help control the growth and spread of the cancer, but it is a cure in only a small number of people.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapies use medicines or antibodies to block growth factors that allow some cancers to grow. At this time, targeted therapies are used for advanced stages of lung cancer.

If you smoke and have lung cancer, quitting smoking will make your treatment more effective and may help you live longer. Smoking delays healing after surgery, so you may have a better recovery from lung cancer surgery if you have quit smoking. People with early-stage lung cancer who continue to smoke during radiation therapy have been shown to have shorter survival times that those who do not smoke.7 It may also make chemotherapy less effective. The nicotine in tobacco seems to help the cancer cells and their blood supply multiply while also protecting the cancer cells from destruction.8 For information and help quitting smoking, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Initial treatment

The kind of treatment and the long-term outcome of lung cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer. Your age, overall health, and quality of life must also be considered. Many people with lung cancer are diagnosed with the disease when the cancer is already in an advanced stage. Fewer lung cancers are diagnosed in the early stages when lung cancer is likely to be cured by surgery.

Non–small cell lung cancer grows and spreads more slowly. Lung surgery (thoracotomy) is usually the standard treatment for non–small cell stage I to stage IIIA cancers. Treatment for non–small cell lung cancer also includes:

  • Checking for biomarkers, such as epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and K-RAS. This can help your doctor choose the treatment that will work best for you.
  • Treatment with a combination of the three therapies.
    • Lung surgery (thoracotomy) takes out the cancer.
    • Radiation therapy sometimes follows surgery for stages IIA, IIB, and IIIA (with lymph node involvement) and may reduce the risk of cancer returning in the chest.
    • Chemotherapy may be used to treat more advanced stages (stages III and IV). Chemotherapy may also be used after surgery for early stages such as IB, IIA, IIB, and IIIA to reduce the risk of cancer returning.

In some cases, chemotherapy with or without radiation therapy may be used before surgery.

Small cell lung cancer grows very rapidly in most people and is more likely to spread (metastasize) to other organs. Treatment for small cell lung cancer includes:

  • Chemotherapy, which usually is the standard treatment for this type of lung cancer.
  • Radiation therapy, which may help shrink a rapidly growing large tumour that is causing symptoms.

Radiation therapy is combined with chemotherapy to treat small cell cancer that is limited to the chest.

Home treatment measures may help relieve some common side effects of your cancer treatment. For more information, see the Home Treatment section of this topic.

What to think about during initial treatment

If you have been recently diagnosed with lung cancer, you may feel denial, anger, and grief. Reactions vary from person to person. There are steps you can take to help with your emotional reactions. If you are having a hard time moving forward with your life, talk with your doctor. Your cancer treatment centre may offer counselling services. You may also contact your local chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society to help you find a support group.

Your quality of life is critical when considering your treatment choices. Discuss your personal preferences with your oncologist when he or she recommends treatment.

You may be interested in participating in research studies called clinical trials. Clinical trials are based on the most up-to-date information and are designed to find better ways to treat people who have cancer. People who do not want standard treatments or are not cured by standard treatments may want to participate in clinical trials. These are ongoing in some parts of Canada and in some other countries around the world for all stages of lung cancer.

For more information about specific lung cancer treatments, see the topics:

Ongoing treatment

After initial treatment for lung cancer, it is important to receive follow-up care.

  • Your oncologist will schedule regular checkups, usually every 3 to 4 months, depending on the therapies used in initial treatment. After 2 to 3 years, regular checkups will occur less often but more than just once a year, depending on your medical history.
  • Checkups may include a physical examination, blood tests, chest X-rays, CT scans, or other laboratory tests recommended by your oncologist.

Radiation therapy may be used to prevent small cell lung cancer from growing in the brain. This is called prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI). PCI may be most beneficial if you have limited small cell lung cancer and have had successful treatment with chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the chest. But PCI is not advised for older people whose thinking process may be impaired.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

The long-term outcome (prognosis) for lung cancer that does not respond to treatment as hoped or that comes back after being treated is poor, and treatment focuses on managing your pain and improving your quality of life (hospice palliative care).

Treatment to help control your symptoms (such as pain, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, and weakness) may include:

  • Radiation therapy. This may be done to shrink cancers that make swallowing or breathing difficult or that are causing pain.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy.
  • Surgery, if your cancer has spread to your brain.
  • Laser surgery.
  • Radiation applied directly to the cancer during surgery.

Other treatments being studied for lung cancer include radiofrequency ablation and cryosurgery. Each of these is a way of trying to destroy the cancer cells without major surgery. These treatments may be useful for people who are not able to have surgery either because they are in poor health or because their cancer is too advanced.

Additional treatment measures

  • Oxygen therapy may relieve your shortness of breath. It is usually used at the end stage of the disease, but it may also be used for pneumonia or other treatable conditions.
  • Thoracentesis is used to remove fluid from around your lungs (pleural effusion). A large amount of fluid may cause pain and shortness of breath.
  • Pleurodesis is used to prevent fluid buildup around your lungs. Pleurodesis is a procedure that is intended to cause inflammation of the lining around your lungs. The irritated tissue reacts by producing scar tissue, which causes the two layers of the lung lining to stick together. This removes the space where fluid can build up around your lungs. Pleurodesis is commonly used to treat fluid buildup around your lungs that returns after repeated thoracentesis.
  • Small tubes (pleural catheters) to drain fluid from around the lungs are used to relieve fluid buildup (pleural effusion).
  • Treatments that burn (cauterize) selected areas of blocked airways or that place stents—small, coiled, wire-mesh tubes that can be inserted into a blocked airway and expanded to hold it open—are also becoming more common.
  • Pain medicines can be taken regularly. These may include prescribed narcotic medicines, such as codeine, or medicines you can buy without a prescription, such as ASA and similar drugs.

Complementary therapies

People sometimes use complementary therapies along with medical treatment to help relieve symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. Some of the complementary therapies that may be helpful include:

For people with lung cancer, studies have shown that mind-body treatments like those mentioned above may help you feel better and cope better with treatment. These treatments also may reduce chronic low back pain, joint pain, headaches, and pain from treatments. Acupuncture may also help with nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.9

Before you try a complementary therapy, talk to your doctor about the possible value and potential side effects. Let your doctor know if you are already using any such therapies. Complementary therapies are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment, but they may improve your quality of life and help you deal with the stress and side effects of cancer treatment.

What To Think About

Most treatments for lung cancer cause some side effects. Which side effects you experience will depend on the type of treatment used and your age and overall health. Your doctor can talk to you about your treatment choices and the side effects related to each treatment.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Side Effects of Radiation Therapy to the Chest
Side Effects of Surgery for Lung Cancer

Hospice palliative care

As your cancer gets worse, you may want to think about hospice palliative care. Hospice palliative care is a kind of care for people who have illnesses that do not go away and often get worse over time. It is different than care to cure your illness, called curative treatment. Hospice palliative care focuses on improving your quality of life—not just in your body but also in your mind and spirit. Some people combine hospice palliative care with curative care.

You may want to start hospice palliative care with your other treatment as soon as you find out you have lung cancer. Having this type of care may help you feel better and avoid having too much medical treatment. One study of people with non–small-cell lung cancer who started hospice palliative care when they were diagnosed with lung cancer found that they not only felt better, but they also lived a little longer than the people who didn't have hospice palliative care.10

Some treatments for advanced-stage lung cancer are considered hospice palliative care. These treatments cannot cure your cancer, but they can control your symptoms, reduce your pain, and make you feel more comfortable. They include:

In addition to helping your body feel better, hospice palliative care can help you feel better emotionally and spiritually. Talking with a hospice palliative care provider may help you cope with your feelings about living with a long-term illness. It may also help your loved ones better understand your illness and how to support you. Or it could help you make future plans about your health and your medical care.

If you are interested in hospice palliative care, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to manage your care or refer you to a doctor who specializes in this type of care.

For more information, see the topic Hospice Palliative Care.

End-of-life issues

If you have advanced-stage cancer, you may choose not to have treatment because the time, costs, and side effects of treatment may be greater than the benefits. Making the decision about when to stop medical treatment aimed at prolonging life and shift the focus to end-of-life care can be difficult. For more information, see the following topics:

Hospice Palliative Care
Care at the End of Life

Prevention

Experts have identified several causes of lung cancer. Most lung cancers are caused by the use of tobacco. Changing your lifestyle can, over time, gradually reduce some of your risk for lung cancer.

Tobacco

Tobacco use is the leading cause of lung cancer. More than 85% of lung cancers are caused by smoking.

To prevent lung and other cancers, do not use tobacco. If you do use tobacco, you can reduce your risk of lung cancer by quitting. Your risk will gradually decrease with time as your lungs recover. Quitting smoking reduces your risk for cancer, and your risk continues to decrease as long as you do not smoke. The benefit of quitting smoking is greater the younger you quit.11

Even cutting down how much you smoke may reduce your risk (but not as much as quitting completely). In one study, cutting in half the number of cigarettes smoked each day significantly reduced the risk of getting lung cancer during a 5- to 10-year period.12

Nicotine gum, medicated nicotine inhalers, nicotine patches, and oral medicines such as varenicline (Champix) or bupropion are available to help you to quit smoking. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Other exposure risk factors

Other things that increase your risk of lung cancer include asbestos, second-hand smoke, and radon exposure. Certain occupations, such as mining and farming, expose people to fumes, radioactive dust, or other chemicals that may be harmful. Taking precautions to reduce your exposure to harmful substances in your environment can reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.

Radiation therapy to the chest area can increase your risk.

Diet

Recent studies on the connection between diet and lung cancer have shown mixed results. Antioxidants, phytoestrogens (found in a wide variety of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and soy products), and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli) may reduce the risk of lung cancer. But there is not clear evidence that these foods help protect high risk people. Other research shows that taking supplements of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and retinoids may actually be harmful and increase the risk of lung cancer in people who continue to smoke.13

Home Treatment

During treatment for any stage of lung cancer, you can manage some side effects that may accompany lung cancer or cancer treatment. If your doctor has given you instructions or medicines to treat these symptoms, be sure to follow them. In general, healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly may help control your symptoms.

Home treatment may help relieve some common side effects of cancer treatment.

Other issues that may arise include:

  • Hair loss. You may be concerned about losing your hair from cancer treatment. Not all chemotherapy medicines cause hair loss, and some people have only mild thinning that is noticeable only to them. Talk to your doctor about whether hair loss is an expected side effect of the medicines you will receive.
  • Sleep problems. If you find you have trouble sleeping, having a regular bedtime, doing some exercise during the day, avoiding caffeine late in the day, and taking other steps to relieve sleep problems may help you sleep more easily.
  • Loss of appetite or difficulty eating. Eating several small meals throughout the day or eating soft, bland foods may help if you do not have an appetite or if certain foods are difficult to eat.
  • Mouth sores (stomatitis) can be a side effect of certain chemotherapy drugs. There are ways you can reduce your discomfort:
    • Drink cold liquids, such as water or iced tea, or eat flavoured ice treats or frozen juices.
    • Eat foods that are easy to swallow such as gelatin, ice cream, or custard.
    • Drink from a straw.
    • Rinse your mouth several times a day with a warm saltwater solution. You can make the saltwater mixture with 1 tsp (5 g) of salt in 8 fl oz (0.2 L) of warm water.
    • Do not eat or drink acidic foods, such as tomatoes or oranges.
    • See other home treatments for a sore mouth.
  • Coughing. You may have an ongoing cough or develop a severe cough. Your doctor can recommend some non-prescription cough medicines or prescribe some medicines to help relieve your symptoms.

Not all forms of cancer or cancer treatment cause pain. If pain occurs, many treatments are available to relieve it. If your doctor has given you instructions or medicines to treat pain, be sure to follow them. You may use home treatment for pain to improve your physical and mental well-being. Be sure to discuss with your doctor any home treatment you use for pain.

If your disease is at an advanced stage, you may choose not to have treatment because the time, costs, and side effects of treatment may be greater than the benefits. Making the decision about when to stop medical treatment aimed at prolonging life and shift the focus to end-of-life care can be difficult. For more information, see the topics:

Hospice Palliative Care.
Care at the End of Life.

Medications

Chemotherapy uses powerful medicines to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is the most effective therapy for small cell lung cancer. It can help control the growth and spread of the cancer, but it cures lung cancer in only a small number of people. Chemotherapy also may be used to treat more advanced stages of non–small cell lung cancer.

Medication Choices

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the medicines enter your bloodstream, travel through your body, and kill cancer cells both inside and outside the lung area. Some chemotherapy drugs are taken by mouth (orally), while others are injected into a vein (intravenous, or IV).

Extensive research and clinical trials have studied the different chemotherapy medicines used to treat lung cancer. Your oncologist will discuss and recommend chemotherapy treatment specific to your condition. Some of the more common chemotherapy medicines include the following:

Bevacizumab is an intravenous (IV) drug that helps prevent formation of blood vessels that supply the tumour with nutrients and help the cancer grow and multiply. Bevacizumab may be used with other chemotherapy drugs, such as carboplatin and paclitaxel, for treating non-small cell lung cancer.

Some of the medicines listed above may not be available or used in all provinces. For information on which medicines are available in your province, talk with your doctor.

What to Think About

Most chemotherapy causes some side effects. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to control nausea or vomiting.

Chemotherapy may be given before surgery (neoadjuvant) or after surgery (adjuvant therapy) to kill cancer cells.

Clinical trials

If standard treatments are not effective or are causing more side effects than desired, you may want to consider being part of a clinical trial. Many clinical trials are studying the different combinations of chemotherapy medicines for the different stages of lung cancer. Ask your oncologist what trials are available for your lung cancer.

Surgery

Surgery to remove the cancer may be an option when your cancer is in only one lung or present in one lung and in nearby lymph nodes. Lung surgery is called a thoracotomy. It usually is done only if your doctor thinks all the cancer can be removed and your general health is good enough for you to handle the surgery.

Surgery Choices

The type of surgery performed depends on the location and size of your lung cancer:

  • Wedge resection (segmentectomy). The surgeon removes a small wedge-shaped piece of lung that contains the lung cancer and a margin of healthy tissue around the cancer.
  • Lobectomy. The right lung has three lobes and the left lung has two lobes. A lobectomy removes the entire lobe of your lung that contains the cancer. Your lungs can function with the lobes that remain.
  • Pneumonectomy. A pneumonectomy removes your entire lung that contains the lung cancer.

Lung function studies and a lung scan are often done before surgery to predict how much of your lung function you will still have after surgery.

Surgery to remove lymph nodes in the centre of the chest is usually recommended at the time of lung surgery, to find out whether the cancer has spread.

What to Think About

You may have side effects from your surgery.

Chemotherapy may be given before (neoadjuvant) or after (adjuvant) surgery to destroy any cancer cells.

Other Treatment

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external radiation therapy) or from putting materials that produce radiation (radioisotopes) through thin plastic tubes into the area where the cancer cells are found (internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy). Radiation therapy is often used in combination with surgery or chemotherapy or both.

People who cannot have surgery may have stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). In SBRT, high doses of radiation therapy are targeted to the cancer. One form of SBRT that may be used to treat tumours that have spread to the brain is called gamma knife radiosurgery. This is a radiation treatment (rather than surgery) that uses a machine to target radiation beams from many different angles all focused on the tumour area.

Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation uses a small needle inserted through the skin and into the tumour. Energy passes through the needle into the tumour. This heats and kills cancer cells. It also closes up the little blood vessels in the area so there is less bleeding.

Laser therapy

Laser therapy uses a narrow beam of very intense light to destroy cancer cells. Laser therapy usually is used in hospice palliative care to remove tumours that block the airway. Laser therapy does not cure lung cancer.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses laser light and a special light-activated substance (Photofrin) to kill cancer cells. It is approved for palliative treatment to destroy tumours that block the airway but it does not cure the lung cancer. Few lung cancers are treated with this therapy. Surgery is still the standard treatment for early-stage lung cancer.

In clinical trials, PDT appears to help relieve coughing, shortness of breath, and coughing up bloody mucus. Additional research is being done.

Cryosurgery

Cryosurgery (also called cryoablation) freezes the tumour and kills it. Cryosurgery for lung cancer is experimental and is being used only in certain clinical trials.

Cautery

Cautery is used to burn (cauterize) and remove tumours that block the airway.

What to think about

Radiation may cause side effects.

Radiation therapy may be used to prevent small cell lung cancer from growing in your brain. This is called prophylactic cranial irradiation (PCI).

Sometimes radiation therapy may be given during your surgery. In this procedure, radiation is focused directly on the tumour during surgery and affects as little healthy tissue as possible.

Radiation therapy also may be used in hospice palliative care to:

  • Shrink tumours that make it hard for you to swallow.
  • Reduce tumours that block your airway and make it hard for you to breathe.
  • Relieve pain from cancer that has spread to your bones or spinal cord.

Other Treatment Choices

Oxygen therapy

Oxygen therapy may relieve your shortness of breath. It may be used after surgery or if you get an infection like pneumonia. Some people who have pulmonary conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), may use oxygen as regular therapy.

Thoracentesis

Thoracentesis is used to remove fluid from around your lungs (pleural effusion). A large amount of fluid may cause pain and shortness of breath.

Pleurodesis

Pleurodesis is used to prevent fluid buildup around your lungs. Pleurodesis is a procedure that is intended to cause inflammation of the lining around your lungs. The irritated tissue reacts by producing scar tissue, which causes the two layers of the lung lining to stick together. This removes the space where fluid can build up around your lungs. Pleurodesis is commonly used to treat fluid buildup around your lung that returns after repeated thoracentesis.

Complementary therapies

People sometimes use complementary therapies along with medical treatment to help relieve symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. Some of the complementary therapies that may be helpful include:

For people with lung cancer, studies have shown that mind-body treatments like those mentioned above may help you feel better and cope better with treatment. These treatments also may reduce chronic low back pain, joint pain, headaches, and pain from treatments. Acupuncture may also help with nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.9

Before you try a complementary therapy, talk to your doctor about the possible value and potential side effects. Let your doctor know if you are already using any such therapies. Complementary therapies are not meant to take the place of standard medical treatment, but they may improve your quality of life and help you deal with the stress and side effects of cancer treatment.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Canadian Cancer Society
10 Alcorn Avenue
Suite 200
Toronto, ON  M4V 3B1
Phone: (416) 961-7223
Fax: (416) 961-4189
Email: ccs@cancer.ca
Web Address: http://cancer.ca
 

The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is a national, community-based organization that provides information about cancer prevention, care, and treatment. The CCS also provides funding for cancer research.


Canadian Lung Association
3 Raymond Street
Suite 300
Ottawa, ON  K1R 1A3
Phone: 1-888-566-5864
(613) 569-6411
Fax: (613) 569-8860
Email: info@lung.ca
Web Address: http://www.lung.ca/
 

The Canadian Lung Association focuses on research, education, and the promotion of respiratory health. The organization offers educational information on a variety of diseases and environmental threats, as well as information on research, support groups, and resources for children and teachers. Call to find a local office in your area.


Related Information

References

Citations

  1. American Cancer Society (2009). Cancer Facts and Figures 2009. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@nho/documents/document/500809webpdf.pdf.
  2. Ettinger DS (2008). Lung cancer and other pulmonary neoplasms. In L Goldman, D Ausiello, eds., Cecil Medicine, 23rd ed., pp. 1456–1465. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  3. Rivera MP (2009). Lung cancer in women: The difference in epidemiology, biology and treatment outcomes. Expert Review of Respiratory Medicine, 3(6): 627–634.
  4. National Toxicology Program, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2005). Report on Carcinogens, 11th ed. Available online: http://ntp-server.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/toc11.html.
  5. National Comprehensive Cancer Network and American Cancer Society (2005). Non–Small Cell Lung Cancer, version 2.2005. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/nscl.pdf.
  6. Aldington S, et al. (2008). Cannabis use and risk of lung cancer: A case-control study. European Respiratory Journal, 31(2): 280–286.
  7. Fox JL, et al. (2004). The effect of smoking status on survival following radiation therapy for non–small cell lung cancer. Lung Cancer, 44(3): 287–293.
  8. Dasgupta P, et al. (2006). Nicotine inhibits apoptosis induced by chemotherapeutic drugs by up-regulating XIAP and survivin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(16): 6332–6337.
  9. Cassileth BR, et al. (2007). Complementary therapies and integrative oncology in lung cancer. Chest, 132: 340S–354S.
  10. Temel JS, et al. (2010). Early palliative care for patients with metastatic non–small-cell lung cancer. New England Journal of Medicine, 363(8): 733–742.
  11. Crawford J (2007). Lung cancer. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, section 12, chap. 8. New York: WebMD.
  12. Godtfredsen NS, et al. (2005). Effect of smoking reduction on lung cancer risk. JAMA, 294(12): 1505–1510.
  13. Goodman GE, et al. (2004). The beta-carotene and retinol efficacy trial: Incidence of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality during 6-year follow-up after stopping beta-carotene and retinol supplements. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 96(23): 1743–1750.

Other Works Consulted

  • American Cancer Society (2009). Cancer Facts and Figures 2009. Atlanta: American Cancer Society. Available online: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@nho/documents/document/500809webpdf.pdf.
  • American Joint Committee on Cancer (2010). Lung. In AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, 7th ed., pp. 253–270. New York: Springer.
  • Canadian Cancer Society, et al. (2009). Canadian Cancer Statistics 2009. Toronto: Canadian Cancer Society. Available online: http://www.cancer.ca/canada-wide/about%20cancer/cancer%20statistics/~/media/CCS/Canada%20wide/Files%20List/English%20files%20heading/pdf%20not%20in%20publications%20section/Stats%202009E%20Cdn%20Cancer.ashx.
  • Detterbeck FC, et al. (2009). Special feature: The new lung cancer staging system. Chest, 136: 260–271.
  • Health Canada (2007). Health Canada-endorsed important safety information on Iressa (gefitinib). Available online: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/medeff/advisories-avis/prof/_2007/iressa_5_hpc-cps-eng.php.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network and American Cancer Society (2005). Non–Small Cell Lung Cancer, version 2.2005. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/nscl.pdf.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network and American Cancer Society (2005). Small Cell Lung Cancer, version 1.2006. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/sclc.pdf.
  • Neville A (2004). Lung cancer. Clinical Evidence (13): 1–21.
  • Schwartz DA (2007). Occupational and environmental lung disease. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, section 14, chapter 18. New York: WebMD.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Michael Seth Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology
Last Revised May 25, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.