Cancer occurs when cells grow and divide without control or order, often producing too much tissue. This extra tissue is called a tumor; lung cancer shows up as a spot on a chest X-ray. Cancer cells may grow into nearby healthy tissue or may break away from the tumor. These cells travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other parts of the body. Untreated, lung cancer can spread to the liver, bone, brain and other organs.
Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer. The longer you have smoked, the greater your risk of getting lung cancer. Your risk also increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke each day. Breathing someone else's cigarette smoke (secondhand smoke) can also increase your chances of contracting lung cancer. Other possible causes include outdoor and indoor air pollution, exposure to radioactive material and improper handling of certain chemicals. However, the cause of any cancer is not always possible to determine.
During the early stages of lung cancer there are not usually any symptoms. Later you may have a constant cough, or you may wheeze and have trouble breathing. Other signs may include contracting colds frequently or coughing up a lot of sputum or bloody sputum. You may also have an achy chest pain that is not confined to one spot. Feeling tired and weak or losing weight are other signs of lung cancer. If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, you may also have other complaints.
Your caregiver will first do tests to find out what stage the cancer is in. Staging includes measuring the tumor and conducting tests to see if the cancer has spread. Tests may include bone and lung scans as well as tissue or bone biopsies (samples). The results of the tests will help you and your caregiver decide on a treatment plan, which may include anticancer medication, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, laser therapy, stent techniques, surgery or a combination of several approaches.
Accepting that you have cancer is difficult. You and those close to you may feel scared, depressed, angry or sad. These are normal feelings. Talk to your caregivers, family or friends about your feelings. You may also want to join a cancer support group. For more information, visit Lahey Clinic's Cancer Center. You can also contact the American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org or by calling 1-800-ACS-2345.